Chapter 57

Irene: I found him.

If there was anything the Community would appreciate, it was brevity.  With Caelum rounding up the less talented hackers in our roster, there wasn’t any reason to tiptoe around potentially dangerous subjects.  They’d given me an order, inasmuch as any group of full-fledged members could actually order another, to locate the Mouse.  Through him, they hoped to ward off Caelum or to at least buy themselves a little time, in order to formulate a better defensive strategy. 

I knew that wasn’t likely.  If Caelum’s leash was being held by the Magi, he wouldn’t cease his attacks until I’d been uncovered and the sporadic assaults on the Magi’s criminal enterprises stopped.  But, with the Mouse out from under siege and with the forces of the Community in my corner, it was possible that we might be able to accelerate the war effort.  Multiple attacks on different fronts wouldn’t just increase the pressure; it would also serve as effective camouflage, ensuring that no single group received the Magi’s full attention and the overwhelming weight of their forces.

That could come later.  Right now, I needed to stop the clock.

 

Frizzle: Where?

Irene: America.  He left breadcrumbs for us to find. I found them.

Frizzle: Doesn’t sound like something he’d do.

Gate: How are you so sure it isn’t someone just pretending to be the Mouse?

Irene: There are personal connections.  Things that only he and I would know.

Max: Are you sure about that?  Talented hackers can find almost anything, if they’re motivated.

 

Despite the time sensitive nature of their assignment, I noticed that Max and Gate were wary of mentioning Caelum’s name.  It was a strange position to take.  Everyone in the chat room was well-aware of the history.  We’d all been involved, in one form or another, with the effort that had…if not taken Caelum down, at least it had contributed to his decision to subside into the background.  And, if he had returned or chose to involve himself in unfolding events, we’d all be on the same chopping block.  What reason could they have to avoid the name itself, as if typing it out would summon him like Beetlejuice into our private room?

I had to remind myself that Max, Frizzle, and Gate were all humans, at their respective ends of the connection.  Their talents notwithstanding, they all had lives outside of the digital world, same as me.  Just as I went out of my way to avoid topics that made me uncomfortable – Mila, most recently; before that, my previous relationship with Devlin – it stood to reason that they might also be terrified of having their secrets exposed.  Avoiding Caelum’s name wouldn’t necessarily increase the chances of a happy resolution but, if it were a superstition that made them feel better, I was content to allow them the short-lived fiction. 

 

Irene: If someone found that information out, we’d be in a lot bigger trouble than we already are.

Max: …

Frizzle: …

Gate: I don’t trust it.  We’ve been looking for the Mouse for weeks and you find him in a couple of days?  It’s too easy.

Irene: Not if he was specifically hoping that I’d be the one searching for him.  He didn’t ask any of you for help, after all.

Gate: I’ve got my own questions about that.

 

Paranoia was one thing.  It was a reasonable reaction under the circumstances, perhaps even the most reasonable reaction.  But that didn’t extend to throwing undisguised suspicion my way, when I’d exposed myself to familial complications for the sake of saving the Community from public exposure.

 

Irene:  Maybe it only took me a few days because I was actually out here trying to find him, instead of hiding behind a computer screen and hoping someone else would take care of the problem for me.

Gate: Sure.  Or maybe you’re the one who ran the Mouse to ground in the first place.  You’ve been sketchy the last couple of months, and we’ve all noticed it.

 

True enough.  I’d been busy living my life, which hadn’t left me a lot of time to consider how my strange absences and equally strange requests might look to an outside observer.  Gate was an asshole, but at least her behavior had a basis in reality.  I couldn’t explain to her why she was wrong, though, and I couldn’t really defend myself.  As far as I knew, Gate was another one of the Magi’s deep cover agents.  Maybe even a sleeper agent who wasn’t aware of her true employer’s identity.  Allowing even the slightest detail to slip about my true agenda might end up leaking to nefarious parties.

Like Mila had said, we were all in this together.  It wasn’t my place to risk the safety of the team, just so that I could defend my ego.  Thankfully, Frizzle picked that moment to step in and bring the nascent argument to an abrupt close.

 

Frizzle: We don’t have the time to waste on this.  Gate, you were the one who wanted her to find the Mouse.  She did.

Irene: At least someone in this chat has some common sense.

Frizzle: That doesn’t mean you’re completely out of this, Irene.  You found him; what are you going to do next?

Max: Can you get him to log back on?

Irene: I can try, but I don’t think he’ll do it without some…assurances.  Someone was tracking him despite his own countermeasures.  If he uses his own system, that same party is likely to latch onto his specific signature and find him again.

Frizzle: Then what?  We didn’t want to re-establish contact with him for its own sake.

Gate: Exactly.  Whoever he pissed off is coming after all of us.  If he can’t or won’t help us, then we need to consider whether or not his membership should be extended.

 

For someone willing to openly attack my credibility, Gate was displaying an awful lot of euphemistic evasion.  She wasn’t talking about membership in the Community; she meant throwing the Mouse to the wolves, as a sacrifice, in hopes that Caelum or whoever else would content themselves with one notorious hacker and would then leave the rest of us alone.  It was a mercenary sensibility, devoid of loyalty…but we were all professional criminals. Just because Devlin ran his teams with honor and camaraderie, that didn’t mean every individual who made a living on the wrong side of the law would operate the same way.

The idea of betraying the Mouse hadn’t occurred to me…or, actually, it had occurred, but only in a roundabout fashion.  I knew that Mila would suggest cutting him loose, just as soon as she was caught up on events, and so I’d run through a list of reasons why that move wouldn’t help us.  Primarily, the Mouse didn’t actually know anything about our attacks on the Magi’s strongholds.  Uncovering his real name and kidnapping him off the streets wouldn’t give our adversaries the information they were after.  When they discovered that, odds were high that they’d simply dispose of the man and return to the attack.  It would give us a few days of respite, at most, before the Community was under assault again. 

More important than the logistical reasons, however, was the fact that he’d trusted me.  I’d never gotten into the habit of betraying people who trusted me.  Devlin didn’t do it.  Michel probably didn’t do it, but I couldn’t actually know for sure without specifically asking.  And Mila…Mila didn’t offer loyalty to anyone, besides the contract, and I could easily imagine that no one had trusted her – again, outside of the contract – before Devlin and me. As the Mouse wasn’t covered under the protective auspices of whatever deal Mila and the Lady had struck, it would seem perfectly logical to her to use him as a smokescreen. 

As long as I made my intractability on the position clear, though, I suspected that she’d follow orders.  Once we could get him on board – more on board, if not fully – and he proved himself to be an asset, there was at least a chance that she’d warm to him.

 

Irene: No need for all of that.  I’ll meet him.

 

The chat went silent for almost a minute.  I used the sixty seconds to check my phone for the date: Friday, a little after two-thirty.  The Mason Murer would be open for another three or four hours.  Six o’clock would be just after closing time, but the building’s security wasn’t overwhelming.  A little bit of work would cripple the security system and there weren’t physical guards to deal with.  I’d be able to slip in, meet with the Mouse, and slip out without any undue trouble.

Except, of course, for meeting the Mouse in person, but I’d cross that bridge when I reached it.

 

Max: You’re sure about that?

Irene: I don’t see any other option.

Gate: I want to talk to him too, but I’m not going to meet him in person.

Irene: I thought you might.  That’s why I set up a VPN for you all to use.  It’ll go active just before the meeting and delete itself when we’re finished.

 

I typed out the address for the VPN and posted it in a subfolder on the Community’s servers.  With that information and their own passwords, the remaining members of the Community would be able to effectively log into my computer while I was using it.  They wouldn’t have administrator rights or access to anything private – those files were sealed away behind staggeringly excessive encryption protocols – but they’d be able to access the local network without physically being present.  It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the only one I’d been able to come up with in the short amount of time I had available.

 

Frizzle: You’re using the security protocols I showed you?

Irene: And some extra measures I picked up over time.  Two-factor authentication, MAC filtering…no one will have access to your information but me and even I won’t know what passwords you entered.  Unless you don’t trust me?

Frizzle: I’m not the one who said that.  Max, if you want to sit this out, I’d understand.

Gate: And let the four of you decide what happens to my life?  I don’t think so.  I’ll just be taking my own safety precautions.  In case.

 

Just because no one else had anything on the matter, I didn’t believe for an instant that Frizzle and Max wouldn’t also be reinforcing their own systems as soon as the conversation ended.  It wouldn’t be a matter of distrust for them, as much as good practice.  Gate’s paranoia made perfect sense, viewed from the lens of someone without all of the information.  

 

Irene: Do what you have to.  I’ll activate the VPN tomorrow, at five.  Meeting is a hour and a half after that, so you should have enough time to check out the local network to your liking.

Max: …

Gate: It’s your show, Irene. 

Frizzle: See you at five.

 

They logged off, almost as one.  I suspected that they’d simply moved to another private chat room to discuss their next move.  It was irritating but, again, I didn’t exactly have room to complain.  I had my own secret strategy meeting to conduct.

The team and I were seated at a Starbucks, taking advantage of a poorly secured wireless access point emanating from an office building across the street.  No one paid any attention to a woman on her laptop, fervently typing with one hand as she downed a chai tea with the other.  Michel and Mila sat on the same side of the table, opposite me, talking about the finer points of some arm lock; Devlin was next to me, pretending to be interested in something on his phone.  Our legs brushed against each other under the table.  It wasn’t enough to be uncomfortable, but the light touch was noticeable in a way that might have distracted me in less dire circumstances.

Devlin noticed a shift in my body language, because he looked up from his phone.  “What did they say?”

They’re in,” I said.  “Or they will be.  They can’t risk doing anything else.”

You’re sure about that?”

I shrugged.  “As sure as I am about anything, yeah.  This isn’t the kind of thing that they have experience dealing with; odds are, they’ll default to following instructions until they can get their feet under them.”

You don’t have experience dealing with this,” Mila said.  She didn’t look up from her drink, which was about ninety-percent sugar and ten-percent foam. 

No,” I countered, “I don’t.  But I do work…well, closer to the field than they do, and I’ve been more active lately.  Besides, they don’t even know the full breadth of what we’re up against.  They’ll let me take point and, if things go wrong, I’m pretty sure they’ll let me take the fall for them.”

Speaking of that,” Devlin said, “I want to talk about this plan again.  You’re sure there’s no other way for you to deal with the Mouse situation without meeting him in person?”

I shook my head and downed a mouthful of tea.  The double shot of espresso sent a pleasant buzz along my nerve endings.  “None that I can think of on such short notice.  They won’t call off the dogs until they’ve had an opportunity to talk to the Mouse and they aren’t going to come out from cover in order to do that.  This is the only compromise they’d be willing to accept.”

I won’t pretend to understand that aspect of things.  But could someone else go in your place?  As far as the Mouse knows, you could be anyone.  You might not even be a woman, right?  So we could…I don’t know, there are some inexpensive local options I could get in contact with.  A few hours and they can put on a good impersonation of your speech patterns well enough to fool someone who’s never actually met you.”

The suggestion was a little too casual to be actually offhand.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered that Devlin had been spending his days looking into ways to protect me or insulted at the idea that thought I needed his protection to begin with. 

All it would take is one technical question to throw everything off,” I said, erring on the side of ‘flattered.’  A single delay or a second of hesitation could spook him and then we’d be back where we started.  Worse, even.”

Devlin leaned back in his chair, pouting slightly.

If he was already upset, I figured I might as well drop all of the bombs on him at the same time.  “Something else you guys should know, too.”

Devlin and Michel perked up slightly.  Mila glanced up momentarily from her sugary abomination.

He’s going to be skittish,” I said, “and he won’t know who to trust.  He’s already established contact with me and he’s expecting a woman.  But he only agreed to a meeting at a museum after hours, and he only did that because he wanted to control any visitors.  Anyone not authorized to be at our little meeting will send him running, so –“

No!” Devlin and Mila exclaimed, at the exact same time.  Their combined volume was enough that a group of college kids to our right jerked in surprise.  Mila gave them a cool look and the undergrads returned to their own laptop.

No,” Devlin repeated, quieter but with much more insistence.  “You are not going to meet him alone.  Out of the question.”

I arched an eyebrow as high as I could manage.  “And you’re going to stop me?”

He won’t,” Mila said.  “I will.  I’m supposed to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you’re going to walk yourself directly into trouble.”

This time, I’d taken the time to consider Mila’s reaction.  She wouldn’t be thrilled about my decision and she was more than capable of stopping me. But she was a ‘point a to b’ thinker and I knew how to appeal to that ruthless practicality.

Look at it this way,” I said.  “If the Mouse goes into hiding, the Community goes to war.  That takes away possible assets we could use later.  If the Mouse gets captured or subverted the Magi, the Community still goes to war and then we’ve got additional resources being devoted to neutralizing anything I can do to help.  This is the best move and you know it’s the best move.”

Mila pursed her lips together and thought about the problem.  I could almost hear the lines of inquiry opening and closing in her mind.  We didn’t know what the Mouse looked like, so she couldn’t just grab him off of the street.  There was no guarantee that he wasn’t keeping an eye on the museum, on the off chance that someone else might be monitoring the building.  And I’d laid out an irrefutable argument: without the Mouse, we lost the Community as potential aid.  With Caelum rampaging through the digital countryside, we couldn’t afford to lose allies. 

You’re going to be armed,” she said finally.  “Not just the taser, either.”

I can’t carry a gun into the building,” I said.  I left out my own reluctance to carry a firearm.  She wouldn’t have cared about that.

Didn’t say anything about a gun.  You’re as likely to hurt yourself as anybody else.  I’ll figure something out.”

And you’ll be on comms,” Devlin added.  “We’ll be nearby and we’ll work out some code word.  The second you say that, we’re coming in and getting you out, no questions asked.”

Fine, fine,” I said, feigning exasperation. 

In reality, their concern was actually heartwarming in a weird way.  Pointless, but heartwarming.  I’d been working with Mila long enough that I was fairly confident in my ability to handle one hacker, but I didn’t want to raise a fuss about the matter.  It was easier to let Mila dictate the terms of my protection and just circumvent them later, than it was to argue the point to begin with.

I still don’t like this,” Mila said.  “Something feels…wrong.  Like we’re missing something obvious.”

I don’t like it either,” I said.  I finished my tea and placed both of my palms flat on the table in front of me.  “But unless you’ve got another idea, I don’t see any other way for us to play this out.”

Mila stared into her drink, frowning slightly.  When she looked up, her expression was set in a grim line.  Her silence was answer enough.

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Chapter 56

Between putting together a new system, transferring the individual files I needed to work on, and uploading various bits of information from the stolen hard drives as necessary, it came as a surprise that I finished my work with a full thirty-six hours left on the clock. When I saw the solution, I couldn’t believe that it had taken me so long to spot what should have been obvious from the first hour.

Virginia helped as much as she could, which wasn’t very much. For a woman of her age, my grandmother was surprisingly capable of grasping technical problems. What she didn’t already know, she was able to quickly conceptualize and grasp. My work, however, dealt largely with cryptographic protocols and network security standards in a strictly illegal fashion. As far as I knew, she might have been able to understand the general philosophy of my work as a hacker, given the opportunity. I just had no intention of giving her that chance.

So, I kept her on the periphery of my work. On occasion, she caught me browsing through spreadsheets and public memos, but I took great care to ensure that she was never around while I read through private emails and balance sheets. When I needed to utilize one of the more legally dubious programs on my laptop, I made sure that she wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity, just to rule out the possibility that she might stumble onto information I didn’t want her to see. That ended up leading to a series of incredibly late nights, as I attempted to wait out the old woman and her ability to stay up for what felt like forever, and days spent sleeping in fits and bursts. It wasn’t ideal but, as long as I was using her mansion as a base of operations, it was a price I was willing to pay.

CJ was around more often than he wasn’t, but we didn’t talk much. It was easy to avoid conversation with him, probably because he was actively attempting to avoid conversation with me. Since the events at the Sovereign, when I’d accidentally overheard my grandmother suggesting an…illicit encounter with a man who was easily a third her age, there had been an impassable gulf of awkwardness between the two of us. He provided assistance when I asked or when my grandmother encouraged him to lend a hand. Other than that, we spent the days mumbling apologies at each other and retreating to our respective sides of the mansion.

One day, while my slapdash system was calculating the results of a particularly tricky algorithm, I found myself wondering about CJ’s background and intentions. Virginia was a wealthy woman, even with the bulk of her fortune tied up in company shares and trust funds. If someone wanted to get close to a woman of her age, in hopes of acquiring some sort of financial recompense for time spent, it wouldn’t be the most ridiculous turn of events. Devlin actually knew men and women who pulled off similar cons, although he maintained that those criminals were acquaintances rather than friends.

I resolved to ask Devlin to look into CJ’s background, just in case. As much as the idea of my grandmother being…intimate with anyone turned my stomach, the very concept of her being taken advantage of was infuriating. If anyone was going to lie to my grandmother, it was going to be me; even then, it would only be for my own good, not to toy with her emotions.

Then, I’d remembered the promise I’d made about dinner on Saturday, and a wave of guilt had drowned out my self-righteousness.

Michel split his time between exercising with Mila and helping to reinforce our mutual cover story. He was more at ease when furthering the deception of our marriage than I would have expected. Of course, he didn’t have to do that much to keep the lie alive. We spent nights in the same room, but my devastated sleep schedule meant that he was able to use the bed more often than not. The two of us went out to lunch, ostensibly for some alone time. In reality, we used the meal as an opportunity to exchange personal information, in case Virginia cornered one of us with a question before I finished up my work in Atlanta and we could move on.

Even though they were more business than lunch, I found myself enjoying the time I spent away from the computer with Michel. He never brought up his burgeoning relationship with Mila again; instead, we talked about our respective childhoods. I’d thought that the expectations placed on me as a member of the prestigious Ford family had been onerous until Michel casually detailed the ways in which his father had emotionally abused him for his sexuality. Devlin had already told me about that aspect of Michel’s personal life, as if I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out for myself eventually, but there was a certain weight to the story when delivered by the man himself. None of what he told me made its way into the official cover identity we created for him, but it still gave me an insight into him that I might not have had otherwise.

Devlin worked things on his own end. I’d asked him once about his contacts and he’d responded in the most vague terms imaginable. After that, I allowed him to work without oversight. As I was still keeping details about the Community to myself, despite all of us actively working to satisfy their arbitrary condition, I didn’t really feel like I had a leg to stand on if he wanted to keep some names to himself.

A part of me felt like he was actively excluding me, though. Academically, I knew that was ridiculous. We’d worked together for years and, for the most part, we worked our own channels without complaint. He didn’t have the knowledge base to really understand what I did and I conspicuously went out of my way to avoid knowing anything about the sort of people who congregated in the backrooms and alleys where Devlin struck his deals. He was someone I trusted, to a point; the people he worked with, however? I took them on a case by case basis.

Mila…I didn’t see Mila much. She split her time between Devlin and Michel, as necessary. That made perfect sense. Devlin was making contacts in the Atlanta underworld. As a matter of course, he was closer to danger on a daily basis than I was. And Mila had a strange relationship with Michel, the depths of which I had no interest in plumbing while other things were on my mind. Conversely, I was safe within my grandmother’s mansion most days and nights. No one except for Virginia and CJ knew that I’d stayed in town after the fundraiser. The odds of someone launching an attack that would require Mila’s intervention were slim to none. All things considered, I was as safe as I’d been since Devlin had retrieved me at the start of the London affair.

But I still hadn’t gotten around to apologizing to her. As more time passed, it grew harder and harder to bring it up at all. Mila didn’t seem to have any interest in discussing the argument or even the job we’d pulled at the Sovereign, so there wasn’t an opening I could use to bring up the topic. I didn’t feel that she was ignoring or avoiding me…but, at the same time, I also wasn’t sure I’d be able to tell. Mila wasn’t acting any differently than she normally did. She wasn’t doing anything abnormal at all, as far as I could tell. I just felt weird about our working relationship, and I couldn’t think of any way to remedy that situation.

Besides the obvious, of course, but her general demeanor made it impossible for me to address the situation without crippling levels of awkwardness. I chose to work, instead.

The final clue – in a way, the very first clue – dropped into place during one of my lunchtime conversations with Michel. We’d chosen a restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine, not far at all from the Sovereign. The location had been Devlin’s suggestion and I’d agreed with the selection. I’d eaten at that spot more than once and it wouldn’t hurt me to keep an eye on the Sovereign. Devlin and I had attacked the Sovereign’s security for our own reasons, but it would have been foolish to ignore the fact that someone had hired a cat burglar to further their own ends….unless Barrett had been working independently, which raised an entire other set of questions.

Can I ask you a question?” Michel asked, when he finished off a mouthful of a shrimp and grits.

That’s kind of the whole point of these lunches,” I said.

He shoveled another fork laden with food into his mouth and chased it with some sweet tea before responding. “This is where you grew up, no?”

Yes and no. I spent a lot of my childhood here, because my parents were away on business a lot of the time. They actually lived in San Francisco at the time.”

Where you were before…all of this started?” Michel waved his fork in the air, indicating our current position.

They…weren’t actually there,” I said. “Or aren’t actually there. I guess. Look, it’d be more accurate to say that they have a house in the city, but they’re denizens of the world. If you pressed me, I’m not sure I could tell you where they are at any given point. At least, not without spending some time tracing their movements.”

He nodded and drank some more sweet tea.

I gave him a few moments to continue. When he didn’t, I speared some quail with my fork, chewed thoughtfully on it, and cleared my throat to prompt him. “That wasn’t your question, though, was it?”

Uh…no,” Michel said. “But now I am concerned that it may come off as rude.”

If you don’t ask it,” I said, “then I’m going to be wondering about it forever. What’s on your mind?”

The food here…it is unique,” Michel said, haltingly. “And if you grew up…I mean, if you spent much of your time here, I am wondering why you cannot, uh…”

Why I can’t cook?” I finished for him. He nodded and I knew that his cheeks would be bright red, if that were a possibility. “It’s really not that complicated. Honestly, I don’t even think that much about it.”

Having said that, I still felt a little hesitation collect in my throat, keeping me from going any further. Since meeting Devlin, I’d spent an inordinate amount of time working on my culinary skills. Since joining back up with him, those same feelings had begun to resurface. Secretly, when I was sure that no one was going to walk in on me, I’d been practicing again. The results had been less than encouraging.

What is the reason? I mean to say…is it possible that you might be cooking dinner for me, according to our false identities?”

I snorted through my nose. “Hardly. Like I said, it isn’t anything special. I have a tendency to start over-thinking recipes. Devlin’s tried to work with me on it before, but no luck. By the time I realize that I’m creating problems where none existed, I’ve burned one thing or overcooked something else. It’s easier to just let him handle it.”

The fact that it had taken me months to get used to the reversal in gender roles didn’t find its way into the conversation. For better or worse, I’d grown up under the watchful eye of none other than Virginia Ford, a scion of the old guard. Her personal brand of feminism allowed for strong women to take leadership roles, but it did not have any room for a woman who couldn’t provide food for her husband. It was an odd juxtaposition, to be sure, but it was one she made work. Me…not so much.

Devlin didn’t care who cooked, so long as food was prepared. He was better in the kitchen than me, so it made perfect sense for him to take the lead. When he’d finally discovered my failings in that arena, he hadn’t even taunted me about it…or, perhaps more accurately, he hadn’t taunted me anymore than he taunted me about everything. Over time, I’d gotten used to our roles, strange as they were.

Michel couldn’t possibly have understood all of that from the thin answer I’d given him. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure how I would have explained all of the interpersonal connections, the tug-of-war I’d felt settling into a position wherein I allowed someone to take care of my food needs, without spending another week or two analyzing every individual interaction between Devlin and me. Thankfully, he didn’t pry into the matter. He simply nodded, ate another bite of food, and began searching for another topic to discuss.

I sensed an opening and decided to bring up the topic we’d been carefully avoiding. “You know,” I said, “Mila might be similar. I mean, with regards to making food. She mostly only eats sweets, if you give her half an opportunity, but you know what I mean.”

Michel froze up, for just an instant. He relaxed an eye blink later, but he didn’t completely relax. “I will…think about that,” he said carefully. “Maybe when we are finished here, I will find the time to cook something for her. Just to see how she likes it, of course.”

Of course.”

He sighed and dropped his fork onto the plate. “I am not normally like this,” he said. “I mean…I have known difficult women before.”

If you knew anyone like Mila,” I said, “then you’ve had a more interesting life than I thought.”

Michel responded with a weak smile. “You know what I mean. She is so difficult and I do not know, from one day to another, if she only sees me as a coworker or as something more. Sometimes, I think that there is no difference for her between the job and the rest of her life.”

I took a second to parse his tortured grammar. “You met her after Devlin and I did. She’s…focused, definitely. I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing she puts on as a type of armor or if it’s just her personality. I’ve seen her let down her guard a few times; so have you, for that matter.”

With Aiden,” Michel said. I was surprised at the level of heat in his words. “But that is an extreme situation. I once knew a man who told me that the best way to get to know someone is to watch how they react the first time you meet them. That is who they are, at their basic level. If that is true, then Mila is…” He trailed off and shrugged.

I listened to what he said with one fragment of my mind, while the rest of it caught onto his phrasing. When they’d first met…there was something to that. I didn’t know exactly what, but a tantalizing fragment of an idea floated just out of reach.

There had been data hidden in the emails and that data had translated to an image of a newspaper on the same day that I’d met Devlin. We’d robbed a fundraiser that night and we’d accomplished the theft with such skill that the charity had refused to divulge exactly what they’d lost. It was a crime that hadn’t technically happened, according to the police. As such, it stood to reason that no one – not the Mouse, not Caelum, not the entire Community – would have been able to figure out my involvement. The theft had been wildly out of my character at the time and the use of technical controls was a new addition for Devin’s work, as well.

But the Mouse would have recognized the signature. Had, in fact, recognized the signature, if the newspaper article buried in code was indicative of anything. Why would he have gone looking for it? How would he even have known to look for evidence of a crime that very few people even knew about to begin with?

It’s where we met,” I said to myself.

What?”

I blinked, refocused on Michel and my present surroundings. “The benefit job. It wasn’t just where Devlin and I met. That was the same day that the Mouse and I started to work more closely with each other. He doesn’t know about the job; he must only know about the fact that it’s an important date for the two of us. It was a message.”

Michel gave me a nonplussed look, but I put his expression out of my mind. I reached under the table for my laptop. I’d been carrying it with me more often lately, on the off-chance that inspiration struck when I was away from the mansion.

Call Devlin for me,” I said as my laptop booted up. Michel hurried to comply.

While he waited on the line, I went back to the original hidden file – the newspaper, shoe date was really the only relevant bit of information – and stared at it for several long seconds. How had I not noticed this first? I was losing my touch.

Here,” Michel said I looked up and he handed me his phone.

I didn’t give Devlin an opportunity to say anything. “You remember our first job, right? We were in Atlanta, but I don’t remember exactly what building we were in.”

It took him a moment to find the name. “The Mason…Mason Murer, I think? One of those contemporary museums. Why?”

I opened my email programs and started to write out a quick message.

Mouse,

Mason Murer Gallery? When can we meet?

-Irene

He hid that message for me to find,” I said to Devlin. “The picture, the old server…it’s a puzzle that only I could solve. He wants someone to find him, but he doesn’t want to risk drawing Caelum’s attention. Or the Magi’s, for that matter, but I’m not sure how much he actually knows about them.”

Devlin’s line of the call was silent for a bit. “So what you’re saying is…”

I started to answer, but stopped when a reply message appeared in my inbox.

Irene,

Saturday. 6:30. Come alone.

The Mouse didn’t bother signing the email. He didn’t really need to. I closed my laptop slowly and looked across the table at Michel. His eyes were a little wide, his breath a little quicker than necessary, but he seemed totally present and aware. It was a shame he wouldn’t play a larger part in the next stage of events.

It means that I’ve got a meeting to arrange,” I said to Devlin.

Chapter 55

We’ve got problems,” I said as I entered the kitchen. I didn’t bother fabricating a prelude or softening my pronouncement.

Mila and Devlin were still seated at the island. During my absence, he’d gotten around to making breakfast, if the empty plates were any indication. He was finishing off a piece of barely-burnt bacon and sipping at his coffee. Mila was polishing off the remnants of what looked like a generic toaster strudel, except that there was too much frosting on the pastry to have come from a single packet. Michel stood over the sink, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows while he washed dishes and placed them in a waiting rack.

All three of them turned to face, confusion apparent on their faces. Devlin spoke first. “Is this a new thing or…?”

We’ve got different problems,” I clarified.

Bigger problems? Or even additional problems?”

I considered the best way to answer that. “I don’t know. It depends.”

Well.” Devlin poured out another cup of coffee and nudged it in my direction. “By all means, tell us what new and exciting difficulty we’re going to have to deal with.”

He didn’t betray even an ounce of pique or irritation at my earlier outburst. If he felt any way at all about it, he was keeping those thoughts locked securely away. As far as I could tell, Devlin was perfectly willing to put aside the previous conversation without even acknowledging that we’d spoken at all.

Mila, of course, remained inscrutable. She watched me with a steady, flat gaze. Aside from the mildest possible sort of interest, no emotion appeared on her face at all. She took a bite from the toaster strudel, wiped away some frosting from one corner of her lips, and waited.

I’d have to talk to her at some point, I knew, but that conversation would have to wait until later. “So,” I said, “I was looking into the hard drives we…wait, where’s Virginia? She isn’t back yet?”

Devlin and Mila exchanged a look, but it was Michel who answered. “She just sent me a text,” he said, not looking up from the sink. “It is proving harder to find your supplies than she expected. It will be a little while longer before she is back home.”

She texts you?” I asked. “Already? When did she even get your number?”

Michel shrugged.

I put that new bit of information away for later consideration and wrenched my thoughts back to the more important topic. “Anyway. I was looking through the hard drives, just trying to get a feel for what kind of information I’ll have to sort through later, and I uncovered something…strange.”

Devlin held up a hand. “Are the technical details going to be important?”

I shook my head. “I can explain this in a way that even you’ll understand.”

He gestured for me to continue. “Carry on, then.”

Alright. Imagine that you wanted to…eavesdrop on a conversation, okay? But you didn’t want to personally do the eavesdropping.”

You’d hire someone to do it for you, obviously. That’s who the Texan was looking for, right? His eavesdropper?”

More or less. I hadn’t expected it to be a digital spy working for him, but you’ve got the essential point down. There was someone ‘listening’ in on the communications coming from at least two of the executives located in the Sovereign. Unless there’s something special about those two, specifically – and I’m not ruling that out yet, because I don’t have anywhere near enough information – it seems reasonable to assume that the Texan was getting intelligence about every major employee working out of that building.”

Devlin whistled. “Do we know the businesses that work out of that location?”

Not yet. I’ll look into it later, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.” I took a deep breath, retracing the mental steps I’d followed to reach a conclusion. “I freely admit that I could be wrong, but it looks like the Texan’s spy also happens to be the Mouse. If he wasn’t working for the Texan the entire time, he’s at least taken over those duties sometime in the past year.”

Devlin’s eyebrows rose but, aside from that, he maintained a neutral expression. “Let’s say you’re wrong, just for argument’s sake. What other possibilities are there?”

Someone else is trying to make it look the Mouse is an informant, for one. Also, it’s technically possible that a third party hired him to write a program, and that program is the one leaving recognizable traces. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.”

Why are you so sure that it’s him?”

I had my answer primed and ready. Before coming downstairs, I’d already run through the permutations multiple times, just to make absolutely certain that I wasn’t leaping to conclusions. “There’s no reason to point the finger at the Mouse for a crime no one even knows about. Anyone talented enough to locate and identify the code wouldn’t recognize it as a belonging to a member of the Community or would be a member of the Community.”

And the other thing?”

He doesn’t freelance like that,” I said. “Never has. He’ll do the work, but he wouldn’t trust other people to use his programs without setting off alarms and drawing attention.”

A few moments of silence stretched out while Devlin processed what I’d said. I could imagine him turning this new information around in his head, trying to translate it via metaphor into something he understood. The situation wasn’t too dissimilar to an artisan who was zealously protective of his tools, or a musician who didn’t allow anyone else to use his instruments. The Mouse was an artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. His signature was too idiosyncratic for anyone else to duplicate.

Third option,” Mila said. She turned so that was facing me, her back against the island.

Okay. What’s that?” I asked.

Someone captured him and is making him do this eavesdropping thing you’re talking about. Explains why the code looks like his work, since it would be his work. Just accomplished under duress.”

She didn’t know about the message I’d received from the Mouse after we got back to the mansion. Devlin must not have found the time to fill her in on every detail. He gave me a look, clearly inquisitive, and I shook my head a fraction of an inch. I didn’t know why I wanted to keep that information to myself. I wasn’t worried about Mila’s loyalty, insomuch as her loyalty could be purchased. But a part of me – an irrational, foolish part of me – rebelled at the idea of letting her know about the Mouse’s fearful message.

Instead, I shrugged with one shoulder and took a sip of coffee, using the mug to hide my face while I lied. “That’s…a possibility, but it’s unlikely. I found something else too.”

She perked up slightly. Or, more accurately, she shifted her weight marginally off of the island and I read that as an increase in interest on her part.

I propped my tablet up on the kitchen island and, when Michel made his way over from the now-empty sink, opened the image file that I’d uncovered. “This,” I said, “is how the Mouse sent me the information we used to find out about the server at the Sovereign.”

Is that…is that Disney World?” Mila asked.

I tilted my head, surprised and a little curious.

She shrugged and, for just an instant, displayed visible embarrassment. “I spent some time in Florida,” she said, “and I’m only human.”

We’ll definitely be digging into that later,” Devlin said, “but let’s stay focused for right now. I’m assuming the Mouse did some sort of technological trickery to hide the information in this picture?”

Technological trickery is the best way to describe it.” I smiled at him. “Now, when I was looking through the files I have access to, guess what I found?”

Another copy of the picture?” Devlin suggested.

Bingo. Except the technological trickery wasn’t hiding the same IP information we used to locate the server here.”

What was it hiding?”

I changed a setting on the program, shifting the family photo itself to the background and replacing it with the underlying data. The tablet screen now showed an image of a newspaper’s front page. The front page article was itself was fairly boring, as front page articles went, but the headline hadn’t been responsible for grabbing my attention.

Alright,” Devlin said, after about fifteen seconds. “I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t get it.”

I stared at him, bothered for no reason I could easily name. “Look at the date, Devlin. Does that look familiar to you?”

Obediently, his eyes drifted from the headline over to the date. Almost immediately, they widened and he sucked in a sharp breath. “Well,” he said, “that can’t be a coincidence, can it?”

The pain in my chest vanished, as quickly as it appeared in the first place. “That’s what I said.”

I still do not understand,” Michel said, raising his hand a little, like a confused child in school.

That,” I said, “is the exact date when I first started working with Devlin. We met at a fundraiser. I was trying to siphon some of their wasted overhead and send it to the people who actually needed the money.”

And I was trying to steal one of the paintings they had on display,” Devlin said. Michel gave him a look that I couldn’t read and Devlin raised his hands in surrender. “It was an original Renoir! It was worth a lot of money to the right people and, after Asher’s disappearance, I needed liquid capital. So sue me.”

Michel blew air out of his nose and shook his head, but he seemed more amused than angry. “You are sure that this is the date, Sarah?”

Positive. It was also the exact same month when I started to work more closely with the Mouse.” That night had also commemorated a truly breathtaking argument between my sister and me, but that information wasn’t necessarily salient to the discussion at hand. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I find myself believing in coincidences less and less, as the months wear on.”

Fair point,” Devlin said. He thought carefully about his next words. “What does this actually mean, though? Why would that information be hidden in the code or whatever?”

I…don’t actually have an answer for that.”

But it’s a problem,” Devlin said. He paused. “Or…is it? The Mouse is your friend, isn’t he? You’ve worked together before. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to know your signature, just like you know his.”

He was right, but not entirely. As soon as I’d seen the underlying image, I’d taken several long seconds to think through every innocent possibility. While the Mouse was certainly capable of digging through the history of data breaches, in search of the markers of my particular technique, it didn’t make sense for him to waste the time. It made even less sense, considering the stress he was currently under. Why would he waste time listening on mundane web traffic while fleeing for his life?

Unless…unless he thought that he could find some sort of respite in that information. Perhaps he was in pursuit of some tidbit of knowledge he could use to bargain for his own freedom? If he was working for the Texan, he was close enough to the information dealer to realize the value a name might hold.

Before I could follow that train of thought any further, the mansion’s front door banged open. I whisked the tablet off of the island, put it to sleep, and hid it underneath my arm. “Shit. I forgot to talk to you, Michel.”

He waved a hand in front of his face. “Devlin and I talked while you were…working, upstairs,” he said. “I can follow your lead.”

I nodded. “Mila?”

She finally devoured the last remaining bits of her strudel and met my gaze, not saying a word.

Keep, uh…keep doing what you’re doing,” I said, after a moment’s pause. It felt weird to give her orders, or even suggestions, while I was consciously avoiding an apology.

If she thought it was strange, she didn’t say it. She merely nodded her assent and turned her attention to a blueberry muffin she pulled from somewhere I hadn’t quite caught.

Virginia stepped into the kitchen first. She wore a broad smile to match her floral sundress, over-sized sunglasses, and Kentucky Derby style hat. “Sarah, you’re already awake? Things have changed, haven’t they? Oh, did you already make coffee, Devlin? Aren’t you such a saint.”

I blinked, trying to switch tracks from our impromptu strategy meeting. Devlin reacted faster. “I didn’t know if you still drank coffee, but I noticed the machine, so…”

The day I stop drinking coffee is the day I stop getting out of bed in the morning,” Virginia replied. “My doctor says it’s bad for women of a certain age, obviously, but everything fun is bad for me, in one way or another.”

As if to punctuate that thought, CJ came into the room. The reason for his delayed entrance – what seemed like nothing so much as an oversized sled, laden with all sorts of bags and supplies – followed behind him. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his cheeks, framing his face, but he labored with his burden without complaint.

I watched him for a few seconds before I realized that, in all probability, I was the reason for the massive weight he towed behind him. “Mila, can you give him a hand?”

She hadn’t reacted in the slightest a moment before, but I could almost feel the hesitation on her part before she put down the half-eaten muffin and moved to help CJ. Despite the size difference, she seemed more capable than CJ. It only took her a few more seconds to pull the sled into the center of the kitchen and, when she was finished, she wasn’t even breathing hard.

Is there…anything…else?” CJ asked my grandmother, between gasps.

Nothing at all,” she said, “except that you desperately need to take a shower. Go take care of that and then we can figure out what to do next, alright?”

CJ nodded. I expected him to walk in the direction of the front door, so that he could shower at his home. He walked instead toward the staircase. Obviously, he planned to shower here. Which meant that he had clothes here. Which was another reminder about the…relationship between my grandmother and the man who was barely younger than me.

Was there any correlation between her sunny disposition and the fact that she’d been out with CJ all day? Maybe, but my brain flatly refused to see what lay at the end of that garden path.

I tuned out those unwanted thoughts and focused on the bags. “Is that for me?”

Well,” Virginia said, “I tried to find everything you had on your list, but some of it needed to be back-ordered. I put a rush on the pieces that I could. I could use the company to get a few things, if you -”

Virginia,” I said. I didn’t snap at her, but I also made sure my tone didn’t leave any room for discussion. “You said you wouldn’t make things worse or harder for us. Getting the company involved is exactly the sort of thing that would get my friend into an even worse position.”

Until I could unravel the connection between the Mouse, the Texan, and the inner-workings of the various businesses housed at the Sovereign, using official power to accomplish anything would likely cause more problems than it solved. Someone was monitoring the traffic at the Sovereign. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that other email accounts were spied upon. A single request for customized equipment could be the thread the Magi or the potential new player needed to pull, in order to lead them all way back up the chain to me and my team.

Probably. Maybe. But I couldn’t risk it, either way.

I know, I know,” Virginia said. “But I just wanted you to remember that it’s a possibility. If you can get your friend out of…wherever he is, we know plenty of lawyers and cops who could help him.”

I barely suppressed a laugh. “That would be…less useful than you think, Virginia. How much do I owe you?”

Virginia shook her head. “Not a single dime,” she said immediately. “I’m helping my granddaughter. What else is my money good for, if I can’t use it for that?”

Okay then. But you’ll have to let me make up for it later,” I said, fully aware that I had no intentions of sticking around long enough for Virginia and her boy-lover to fall into the Magi’s cross-hairs. A pang of guilt sent a single knife through my heart, but I managed to keep that temporary pain from my expression.

Dinner?” Virginia suggested. Her voice became lighter, as though she were forcing herself to sound casual. “I’ve got plans the next few nights, but I should be free this weekend. You’ll be here this weekend, won’t you?”

The Community’s deadline was fast approaching. The Mouse was either working for the Texan, against him, or some bastardized mixture of the two. Caelum was more than likely active again, hunting down other skilled hackers and exposing them to the light. I happened to be in a position where exposure meant more than criminal charges. If the Magi found out my name and got even a hint of what I was doing, with regards to their businesses, I and my team would suffer unimaginable agony.

I looked at the rest of my team, Devlin in particular. He held my gaze for a second and then let it slip away without commenting. My grandmother, my choice to make. A change had been wrought in her since the last time I’d visited. As a result of that change, Virginia apparently wanted nothing more than to bond with her youngest granddaughter.

I’ll be here,” I lied. “Saturday sound good?”

It was easily the smallest lie I’d told since coming to Atlanta. That didn’t make it weigh any lighter on my conscience.

Chapter 54

The petulant anger that had driven me out of the kitchen dried up long before I made it back to my room. I kept going anyway. Eventually, I’d have to apologize for my outburst, but I couldn’t bear to do it so soon. It wouldn’t bother Mila if I waited another few hours before making amends.

That’s what I told myself, at least. Another part of me – smaller, often overlooked, but no less insistent for its relative size – told the truth about my reluctance: her innocent question had poked a neat hole through my self-presumption and I didn’t have any answer that would satisfy her.

Appealing to her sense of family wouldn’t work, as it did with Devlin; what little she’d shared about her past, pre-Aiden, didn’t exactly paint a rosy picture. And she self-acknowledged that her experience with teams was limited. Even if she’d spent her entire professional career hopping from one group to another, the sort of team that Devlin ran was an oddity in our profession, to say nothing of our peculiar client and the unusual job we’d been saddled with. Our lives were inexorably bound together as a result of the Lady’s machinations. If we were all depending on the other for our literal survival, what room did any one or two of us have to make sweeping decisions, regardless of the personal stakes?

There were benefits to working with someone as detached and generally unemotional as Mila but, as the months wore on, I was beginning to understand that there were also several very large problems inherent in our arrangement. I tended to think about how one choice could lead to a dozen others, in order to plot a path to my goal with maximum efficiency and minimum disturbance. She looked at a problem and then drew a straight line to the solution, complications be damned. To say that we were professionally incompatible was an understatement.

As I reached the top of the staircase, I paused momentarily. In a way, Mila worked very similarly to Devlin, when he was in his ‘coldest’ configuration. Maybe that was why the two of them got along so well.

I didn’t run into Virginia and CJ as I walked through the house. I could only assume that they’d left earlier to pick up the computer supplies I’d outlined for them. Whenever they returned, assembling a system with the necessary horsepower would become my top priority. For the moment, however, their absence meant that I couldn’t use them to distract me from my own thoughts. Unfortunately.

Michel was also gone. He hadn’t been in the room when I’d woken up and, in fact, hadn’t been there much of the previous night. He obviously wasn’t with Mila or Devlin. He and I had work to do, as well. Virginia still believed that I’d married our French driver, and the details of that story needed to be finalized. Number two on the priority list, then, after building a system to use while in Atlanta. But, as he’d vanished off somewhere, that item would also have to be delayed. Of course.

I decided, ultimately, to do a little work, as opposed to stewing in my shame and wasting time I absolutely could not afford to waste. At least one or two of the hard drives, depending on the internet connection, would already have been transferred to my servers. I could sort through some of the data, rule out general groups of information, and put myself on firmer ground for when the real hunt began.

It would also serve as effective, distracting busy work, but that was only the third or fourth reason on my mind.

I left my tablet at the foot of the bed, where I’d discarded it before passing out, and opened up my laptop instead. Sure enough, I found several new folders when I logged into the server I’d dedicated to this task. I opened the first one – conveniently labeled as Soverign1 – then rummaged around in my luggage. At the bottom of an otherwise unremarkable suitcase, my fingers touched a zipper, leading into a secret compartment. Inside that compartment, sealed away with an entire layer of gel ice packs, I found my remaining treasure trove of Diet Cokes.

If I couldn’t have coffee without dealing with Mila’s questions, I could at least get my caffeine the way God intended, damn it.

With that accomplished, I took a seat at the computer and started trawling through the various files. Various programs I’d used, stolen, or reverse-engineered over the years handled most of the heavy lifting. All I needed to do was peruse the headers on each spreadsheet or the sub-folder names to get a basic idea of what was contained within, before deciding whether or not the contents were relevant to my needs. But I needed to do a lot of that and I suspected that I’d go through more than one of my contraband sodas before I finished with even this small sampling.

Surprisingly, right around the middle of Sovereign3, I landed on something interesting. In a boring email chain between two executives, wherein the two middle-aged men discussed the merits of their extramarital affairs, there was a single line in the metadata that didn’t fit with the rest. It was a simple, un-encrypted email and I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at it ordinarily, but my programs had isolated this chain because of a slight error.

Anything from a weak internet connection to a poorly configured router could have been responsible for the extra code. It was the sort of thing that happened whenever any traffic didn’t manage to make the journey from computer to open internet without difficulty. I opened the metadata anyway, scanning through the repetitive call-and-response between the two executives and the router.

When I saw the error, my eyes widened and I let out a small breath in surprise. The individual line that my programs had alighted on wasn’t just an error in transmission. Instead, it was a signature attack pattern that I recognized: someone had been spying on the two executives. In order to do that, the attacker had effectively lied to the router and pretended to be the individuals in question. Whenever either account set out an email, browsed the internet, or opened a balance sheet stored on their corporate cloud, that information had been sent instead to the attacker before being routed to its proper destination. The same process would work in reverse, as well. Effectively, all traffic would pass through the attacker’s computer, giving him or her the ability to easily read everything in real-time.

I pulled up all of the emails from those two executives and, looking more carefully through the code, found similar fingerprints that had been hidden more effectively. I’d only caught the one error because the email chain had caused a sort of echo effect; nothing that would have been noticeable to anyone who wasn’t looking specifically for traces of a malign digital presence, but still something that a more competent hacker would have taken steps to conceal.

Well,” I said out loud, “that’s one bit of good news. Maybe.”

It appeared that I’d found the first traces of the Texan’s source. When my system finished pulling and organizing the traffic logs, I’d know exactly what to look for. This thin trail wouldn’t be enough to pin down any attacker, but it might be enough to get the Texan off of our backs. If the records were accurate, the ‘man in the middle’ had been active as recently as three nights beforehand. That meant the Texan’s source hadn’t been compromised but had, instead, decided to go radio silent for some reason.

A niggling sensation at the very back of my thoughts commanded me to look deeper into the emails. Appeasing the Texan ranked lower on my list of priorities than finding the Mouse, but I didn’t exactly have any leads to follow for the latter problem. Besides, there weren’t that many emails available to peruse. I could afford to spend a few minutes confirming my suspicions and shoring up the Texan’s job while I waited.

I ordered my little helpers to sort through the documents that had already been cataloged, specifically searching for the signature the Man in the Middle had left behind. A series of messages flickered by as the programs worked, too fast for me to track each one. When a single message popped up that displayed something in addition to the telltale marker, I almost missed it.

I sent the filing program to the background and focused my attention on the lone email with the digital fingerprint of the Man in the Middle. With the aid of the programs, I could see that there was a smattering of random bits and bytes contained within the email. There were parts of the code switched off, when they should have been on, and pieces switched on, that should have been switched off. It wasn’t enough to change the sum total, but it did set my nerves and anxiety on edge.

If the email containing the secret code was accurate, I should have seen a woman in a state of undress. But, looking at the lines written behind the scenes, I saw something else entirely. It took my laptop a while to chug it way through the process of compiling scant pieces of data into a complete whole. When it was done, I leaned back in my chair and looked at the product of the system’s work.

It was a picture, as it turned out. Just not the one that should have appeared. The picture wasn’t any different, functionally speaking, than the picture it should have been. With everything piled together and organized so that it worked, the individual lines of code weren’t particularly remarkable. What stood out to me, however, was the fact that the picture was familiar.

I looked at the computer screen and the frozen image of a family at Disney World looked back at me.

What are you doing here?” I asked the image.

As far as I could tell, the picture I’d just uncovered was identical to the one I’d received from the Mouse, back in Tangiers.

I’d never bothered to track down the original source of the picture, so it might have had some other meaning I hadn’t yet uncovered. Or, maybe the Man in the Middle was attempting to disguise some other message in the picture. Hell, as far as I knew, maybe the original photograph didn’t have any nefarious meanings and multiple hackers were just taking advantage of some stock images for their own purposes.

That last one was a stretch, though, and I’d given up on coincidences even before the London job spiraled into the catastrophe it had rapidly become. I spent a minute digging up the Mouse’s original image, laid them over each other in Photoshop, and then stripped them down to their constituent bits and bytes. If there were any differences, that would be the fastest way to spot them.

My poor, belabored laptop struggled to handle my request. I rolled my eyes at its efforts and stood, stretching my legs, just as a knock came from the door.

Sarah?” Michel’s voice, tentative and uncertain. “Are you busy?”

It didn’t take any great intuition on my part to realize that Michel had probably spoken to Mila and Devlin downstairs. I didn’t feel like rehashing my childish outburst at the moment and I considered ignoring Michel’s polite knocks. I relented from that position when I decided that some time away from my glowing computer screens would do wonders for my continuing eyesight. Besides, I’d chewed through a considerable portion of the available work for the day. I’d tackle more when Virginia returned and I could take the time to set up a better system.

And, I had to admit that Michel was good company. He wasn’t quite as good at camouflaging his presence as Devlin – no matter how quiet Michel was, I was almost always aware of him – but he was sweet and genial. I could use sweet and genial.

I left my laptop working on the two pictures, crossed the room, and opened the door without warning. Michel stood alone in the hallway outside of the door, with a cardboard cup of coffee in each hand.

I brought one for Devlin,” Michel said, “but he told me that you might want it more.”

I rolled my eyes and gestured for him to enter the room. “Where’d you go last night?”

Michel closed the door behind him. He placed both coffee cups down on the far end of my workstation before answering. “When I need to think about things, I like to drive,” he said. “And I needed to think about things last night.”

You’ve got problems with how Devlin and I handled the job, too?”

He shook his head quickly. “No. Not about that. You two have been doing this for much longer than me. If you think that you made the best move, then I will believe you.”

I examined both coffee cups for a long time, eventually selecting the one with a label suggesting that ‘extra cream’ had been added. “Then what?”

Michel hesitated, but only for a heartbeat. “Mila, of course. She is…very confusing.”

He couldn’t have meant anything by it, just as he couldn’t possibly have known my own conflicted feelings about Mila at that exact moment. I swallowed down a sharper reply than he deserved and decided upon a more delicate tactic. “I’m really not the person to ask about what or how she thinks.”

I know that,” Michel said. “But…”

But what? You thought that I’d have some insight into her, just because we’re both women?”

Michel shrugged helplessly.

A smile appeared on my face, all on its own. “Even if I was some sort of woman-whisperer,” I said, “I’m pretty sure we both know that Mila isn’t going to fit neatly into any regular sort of category. What’s got you all confused now, anyway?”

He waved away the question. “It is not important.”

We’re a team,” I said. The irony of that particular phrase, in light of my argument with Mila, was astounding. “If the two of you are going to have…issues…we should definitely get that cleared up before it becomes a problem later.”

Michel shook his head. “Really, it is not even worth talking about now. Maybe after we find your friend, you and I can find some time to discuss the matter, if you actually want to.”

Next to Devlin, Michel was probably the closest thing Mila had to a friend, the oddities of their relationship notwithstanding. On the rare occasions that I found myself in need of a bodyguard, we’d always managed to pull through, but our specialties weren’t traditionally compatible. I stayed back and worked the problem from long range; Mila charged in to meet difficulties with her fists, feet, and the occasional firearm. So, I didn’t know what nuggets of wisdom Michel thought I might be capable of offering, but I still wanted to help.

Perhaps I’d get a little bit of insight into her personality in the process, though. It wasn’t likely. But the previous six months had taught me, in no uncertain terms, that stranger things could and would happen, given the opportunity.

Yeah,” I said, “maybe when we’re done with this situation with the Mouse. And the Texan, for that matter. Honestly, I think we deserve a break after this.”

Michel chuckled. “I do not think that our employer is the sort to allow vacations, Sarah.”

Well, I’ve got her credit card, figuratively speaking. If I want to go on vacation, let her try and stop me.” I smiled at Michel and he smiled back at me. “Did you need anything else?”

He shook his head. “Devlin wanted me to bring you your coffee and I wanted to speak with you for my own reasons. But I can see that you are busy right now. We will catch up later?”

I nodded, absently glancing in the direction of my laptop. It had switched off at some point during the conversation – shoddy batteries, most likely – so I pressed the power button to reactivate it. “Definitely later,” I said. “But not too much later. I’ll be done with this before too long.”

Michel nodded at that, then excused himself without wasting any more words.

As soon as he’d left the room, I remembered that I needed to speak to him about purely logistical matters. That could wait, though. There were many hours until nightfall, when that particular problem would be relevant again. Besides, I’d enjoyed the temporary reprieve into personal, relationship issues. It provided a nice contrast to the typical life-and-death decisions the team customarily found ourselves involved in.

When my computer finished rebooting, I entered a complicated password – courtesy of Avis – and logged back into the server I’d been working on before Michel’s interruption. In a stroke of good luck, my laptop had finished overlaying and cross-checking the two images before shutting itself off. I opened that file and perused the results.

There was actionable intelligence contained in the subtle differences between the two photos, or at least something in the general neighborhood. I read through the files twice, making sure that I grasped the broad strokes of the revealed information, transferred both the files and a quick write-up on their contents to my tablet, and grabbed another soda from my dwindling supply.

No matter what our personal issues, I could always trust Mila and Devlin to be professionals. Michel, in his own way, was capable of compartmentalizing his issues when working in the field required him to be objective. It was part of what made us an effective team, inasmuch as the way our personalities generally synchronized.

If I was reading this email correctly, I didn’t have to worry about their ability to work through their feelings. My own connections would prove infinitely more complicating, in the long run.

Chapter 53

I woke the following morning in a foul, pitch black mood. Despite the bone-deep exhaustion from the previous night, I’d slept in fits and spurts. Nightmares of the Magi’s agents invaded my dreams and kept me from ever truly settling in to the necessary REM cycle. When dawn broke, the sun found me staring up at the ceiling and contemplating the merits of murder.

There was an unending list of things to do, though. At the top of that list, demanding my attention before anything resembling work could possibly be attempted, was a burning need for caffeine. I stumbled, bleary-eyed and only semi-cognizant of my surroundings through the mansion, relying on muscle memory to keep me from walking out of an open window or over a bannister. Before even stepping into the kitchen, the aroma of coffee rose up to greet me, filling my nostrils and beckoning me forward.

You’re up early,” Devlin said lightly.

I grumbled a response in his direction, foregoing even the modicum of effort it would have taken to make myself understandable. I pointed in the general direction of the coffee pot, ignored Devlin’s answering chuckle, and waited impatiently until he placed a warm – but not quite scalding – mug into my waiting grip.

I made that pot a while ago,” he said. “Figured you wouldn’t want to start your day off with a scorched tongue.”

I took a long swallow from the mug and gave the caffeine a few seconds to work its magic before responding. “You didn’t know I was going to be awake,” I said.

You had to wake up eventually,” Devlin said. “I just happened to get lucky with the timing.”

I grunted again. Devlin gestured to an empty seat next to him at the kitchen island. I dropped heavily into the seat, growing more awake as the seconds passed and the coffee disappeared from my mug. The events of the previous night hadn’t been able to settle into place yet, despite the hours of black, dreamless sleep I’d just roused from. Virginia knew some of what I’d been up to for the last six months, even if I’d deliberately left out virtually all of the context around those activities. CJ, her boy-toy, presumably knew as much. For the next handful of days – at least until I could find a trail that might lead me to the Mouse – she would be a constant hassle, an additional obstacle to navigate around.

It wasn’t that she’d try to stop me from doing what I needed to do, within reason. No, Virginia would get in our way by the simple fact of her desire to help. Without filling her in on everything about my past – my early forays into computer crimes, the partnership with Devlin, the Lady, and the ominous figures of the Magi casting long shadows over everything else we did – she would inevitably stumble her way into even greater trouble than I was already in.

No, she needed to be sidelined for her own good. How to sideline her, however, was a question I’d been avoiding since the encounter at the Sovereign the previous night.

Devlin and I didn’t speak until after I’d finished my second cup. As my mental faculties switched back on, one at a time, I started to take stock of the room. My tablet was upstairs, as was my laptop, and I didn’t wear a watch as a matter of personal aesthetic choices. I didn’t know exactly what time it was, except that the sun was beginning to shine its light through the plate glass windows leading to the patio outside. Devlin’s attention flickered between a newspaper on the top of the kitchen island, his cell phone, and me.

What is it?” I asked finally.

Hmm?” He blinked and visibly pulled his thoughts back from wherever they’d wandered to. “What’s what? I mean, what are you talking about?”

You keep looking at me,” I said. “What, is there something on my face?”

Devlin shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I just don’t see you in the mornings all that often.”

You see me all the time.”

When you’ve had a chance to get dressed, put on makeup, and whatever else it is you ladies do, sure. But like this? When you’re barely even human, with your grunts and nonvocal half-sentences…”

Devlin trailed off. I gave him about fifteen seconds to finish his thoughts and, when he didn’t, I put aside the coffee and gave him an appraising look. “What? Finish your sentence.”

It’s nothing,” Devlin said quickly. “Seriously, don’t worry about it.”

My very best appraisal was nothing against Devlin’s extreme control over microexpressions. It was like trying to read the face of a stone gargoyle. I quickly gave up and decided to focus on more tangible matters, instead of attempting to unravel the mind of my ex-husband on the spot.

What’re you reading?” I asked.

Local paper,” Devlin said. “It’s not too bad, as these things go, but it’s not the greatest.”

Any mention of the servers being stolen from the building?”

Devlin smiled. “As it turns out, those particular hard drives were scheduled for a…what’s this called?” He motioned for me to come closer. When I did as he’d asked, he pointed at an acronym on the page.

Let’s just go with…” I took the requisite few seconds to translate tech-speak into layman’s terms. “It’s a backup. Just call it that. Virginia got the guards to go with that story? They’re absolutely going to get fired by whatever rent-a-cop agency the building’s owners got them from in the first place.”

Devlin’s face gave away nothing. “However she did it, it doesn’t look like anyone’s looking for us. Although I suppose we should probably get those hard drives back in their proper place before too long.”

Before falling asleep, I’d set all of my remaining electronic devices – which amounted to a tablet and two laptops, none of which were particularly beefy – to the task of transferring data onto an overseas server. In addition to storing all of the data, several databases were being automatically populated with relevant information that would make my eventual brute-force search easier: dates, usernames, file sizes, and the like were all tabulated and organized in a way that would allow me to sort through the volumes of information in the short time I had available in the next few days.

I’ve got it under control,” I said to Devlin. There wasn’t any reason to burden him with unnecessary technical jargon that he wouldn’t understand or particularly care about.

He nodded, turned to another page of the newspaper, and took a long sip of coffee. I did the same, without the paper. We sat at the kitchen island in comfortable silence for several minutes.

It wasn’t exactly peaceful, but there was an easy familiarity that I appreciated. Over the years of our partnership, I’d grown accustomed to Devlin’s steady presence in a way that defied explanation. If he wanted to make himself feel present, he could do that; on the other hand, he possessed the ability to withdraw into himself, erasing or concealing his very aura. I still knew that he was there, of course. But I didn’t necessarily feel him there. Or, perhaps more accurately, I didn’t feel as though his presence was an intrusion or out of place. Either way, by effectively removing himself from my consideration without withdrawing the positive feelings his presence generally came with, Devlin helped me to move out of my own head and away from the storm cloud of irritation that had been building inside me since leaving the Sovereign.

With Devlin consumed with his paper and my electronics busily churning through our stolen hard drives upstairs, I allowed my thoughts to drift away from the present, off into the realm of the theoretical and conceptual difficulties facing us. Anxiety still thrummed at the edges of my thoughts while my mind turned over any number of complicated problems, looking for solutions that refused to present themselves. In less than twenty-four hours, we’d managed to involve at least three additional people in the grand, dangerous game we were playing with the Magi. The Texan, at least, most likely had methods of protecting himself or, failing that, secrets he could use to purchase his safety, assuming that the Magi bothered to target him in the first place. I didn’t know how much information he’d managed to cobble together since London, but I could assume that he didn’t actually know much about the Magi or the Lady. If he had, either our employer or our enemies would have taken steps to neutralize him as a threat a long time ago.

But Virginia and CJ knew nothing about the battlefield they’d stepped onto. Telling them everything was the option I loathed the most. It would allow Virginia to take steps to protect herself, theoretically speaking, but the way she’d handled the few tidbits I’d given her the previous night led me to believe that she’d choose to fight, rather than flee. Even if I shared everything I knew with her, that wouldn’t necessarily give Virginia the appropriate context to understand how dangerous the Magi were. At best, she’d be nominally more informed, but not informed enough to make intelligent decisions. At worst, it would only make her another possible avenue of attack that the Magi might use against me.

Running was a possibility. That was marginally better than telling Virginia any more details about my secret life, but only marginally. I could avoid the Magi, because they didn’t actually know who they were looking for. If Virginia Ford dedicated a significant quantity of resources to the task – private eyes, international business associates, or even just people who owed the Ford family favors – it would be far more difficult to stay hidden. Maybe I’d be able to slip the tail, but I couldn’t ever really be sure of that. Maybe Virginia’s attempts to help would only draw the attention of other, more nefarious individuals who could put two and two together. Or maybe, one day, she’d get a report from a detective about the sort of people her baby granddaughter was really working with.

Too much risk, not enough potential reward.

The only real choice I had was to finish our jobs in Atlanta: find the Mouse or a trail leading to him and discover something that would buy the Texan’s silence while we went about our work. With that done, I’d have to work with Devlin, Michel, and Mila to spin a convincing lie that got us out from under my grandmother’s watchful eyes. Then, I could disappear back into the underworld for as long as necessary, until the Magi were dealt with. Or, perhaps, until they dealt with us.

Either way, it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

Neat, precise footsteps caught my attention and pulled me back into the moment. Devlin and I looked up at the same instant, in the direction of whoever was approaching. Devlin’s brain reacted faster than mine, judging from the way his shoulders relaxed before my mind had even finished processing new visual data.

Mila strolled into the kitchen, the very picture of casual disinterest. Something about her body language set off my internal alarm bells. There wasn’t anything different about her that I could identify, but a wariness bubbled up from deep within me. I set down my coffee cup and waited for her to speak.

The previously comfortable silence between Devlin and me was gone, replaced now with a tense feeling of apprehension. Mila walked over to the coffee machine, gave the pot a critical look, and then cleared her throat. “No coffee for me?”

I, uh…just took the last cup,” I said. My voice sounded weak to my own ears, and I had no idea why. I wasn’t scared of Mila. Well…I wasn’t scared that Mila would hurt me. Having seen the aftermath of her handiwork on a few different occasions, I was plenty scared of her, in a general sort of way.

I’ll make some more,” Devlin said. “You’ve never been a coffee drinker before, though.”

Mila shrugged. “Seems like we’re all trying new things lately. I’m drinking coffee. Sarah’s going out in the field. The two of you are taking on dangerous jobs without waiting for backup. The sky’s the limit, apparently.”

Oh. Mila would be upset about our unsupervised activities at the Sovereign. Her professionalism likely rebelled at the very idea of allowing her charges to rush into dangerous situations without her support.

But was that really relevant anymore? Sure, she was still being paid by the Lady, as far as I knew. Mila had, however, been given an opportunity to walk away from this war at the very outset. Given that chance to leave in favor of less dangerous employment and provided with full knowledge of the loose way in which we tackled jobs, did she really have a reason to be upset with us?

The thin veneer of calm that Devlin’s presence had provided fell to ashes in an instant. Academically, I knew that Mila had every reason to be perturbed. Emotionally, her light sarcasm seemed like a prime opportunity to vent my frustration. Emotion won the brief battle handily.

If you’ve got something you want to say,” I began, “why don’t you just come out and say it?”

Mila gave me an even, unreadable look for a long time before she responded. “It was stupid for the two of you to try that job without waiting for Michel and me to get there. There. I said it.”

And what would you have done differently?” I asked. A little bit of scorn found its way into my words and I didn’t waste too much effort trying to wrestle it down.

I guess we’ll never know,” Mila said. “Maybe nothing. But I know for sure that we’ve got extra problems now that we might not have had, if you hadn’t jumped the gun.”

She wasn’t even raising her voice. There didn’t seem to be any particular heat to what she said, no discernible emotion at all. Mila was just speaking the facts as she saw them, in that same flat tone. It only served to stoke my emotions higher.

We’ve got problems? You’re not the one whose grandmother is suddenly interested in every detail of your life, Mila.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m not. What does that have to do with anything?”

What does it have to…are you serious? Do you really not understand how this could affect my life?”

Mila gave the coffee pot another forlorn look, sighed, and crossed the room to the fridge. She spoke as she walked, when her back was turned to me. “That’s not what I meant. Yes, it’s your grandmother involved and it’s your identity on the line. But that doesn’t mean it’s not our problem. We’re a team, aren’t we?”

I opened my mouth to respond, to say anything, but any smart retort died on my tongue.

Mila continued, as inexorable as the tide. “I’ve got problems with Aiden. Those don’t affect you – at least, they don’t have to affect you – but the two of you insisted on helping me with him, even after I specifically said I didn’t want your help. Is that a one-way thing? You get to tangle yourselves up in my business, but your life is off-limits?”

That…I’m not saying that, Mila, and you know it.”

Mila shook her head again. “I really don’t. This is the first team I’ve been on. Devlin, is this normally how it goes?”

Devlin, who had been quiet since I’d started the confrontation with Mila, coughed uncomfortably into his mug. When he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to disappear into the coffee, he sighed and looked up. “This is hardly a normal situation,” he said slowly, “but no. This isn’t how we want to do things. If one of us has a problem, then all of us do.”

Then,” Mila said, “we should all have something to say about how we go about fixing those problems, right?”

Devlin found something interesting at the bottom of his mug. The way his shoulders were set told me that he wasn’t going to answer Mila’s question, no matter how long I waited. It was probably a smart decision, but it felt vaguely like a betrayal.

So, I spoke instead. The brief flash of anger that had motivated me into starting this fight had long since died down and only pride kept me from backing down. “This is…this is different.”

Mila considered that for a few seconds. “What’s the difference?”

The worst part about her question was how genuinely curious she sounded. Again, there was no anger or accusation in her voice; just simple curiosity. Mila could be so normal occasionally that it became perilously easy to forget about how little experience she had dealing with regular people who weren’t trying to kill her or use her to kill others.

My jaw worked open and shut several times, but no answer came to mind.

…that wasn’t entirely true, though. A number of particularly snide comments came to mind. I considered attacking her on a variety of personal levels, but I stopped myself from hurling those insults at her for a few reasons.

One: there was every possibility that Mila wouldn’t be affected by attacks of that sort. It wasn’t as though she’d ever professed any attachment to her past.

Two: if they did rattle her, I absolutely did not want to be on the receiving end of Mila’s anger. Devlin would step in, as best as he could, but he’d only be an obstacle in the way if Mila decided to forgo the terms of her contract and punch me for something I’d said.

Three: regardless of the outcome, speaking even one of the insults that came to mind would cause irreparable damage to whatever relationship existed between the two of us.

That last reason, more than the other two, shamed me into silence. Any remnant of anger evaporated instantly, leaving me standing alone trying to meet the twin gazes of Devlin and Mila. I cast wildly around for something to say and the silence stretched out for what felt like an eternity.

I don’t have time for this,” I said finally. “Some of us have work to do.”

I spun on my heel and stalked out of the kitchen, inwardly cursing at how foolish that exit line had been. Mercifully, though, neither Devlin nor Mila followed after me.

Chapter 52

The Mouse’s email hadn’t necessarily cut down on my available time, but it did make that time seem immeasurably shorter. There were seven days – or was it six days? – left on the clock. In that time, I had to dig through a trove of data in search of something I could use to track down the Mouse, then bring him back into the Community’s chat room to explain himself. Depending on his explanation, we might possibly find a way to defend ourselves against Caelum’s stealthy efforts and, with the full strength of the remaining Community members in our corner, hopefully make some headway in my team’s personal war with the Magi.

Before I could do any of that, though, I still needed to deal with Virginia. The story I’d told her at the Sovereign would hold up to a measure of scrutiny, as long as she didn’t devote too much time or attention to the fine details. But, as Devlin had pointed out, I would be welded to that story for the foreseeable future. I’d have to dedicate a portion of my attention to updating the lie as circumstances changed or run the risk of everything unraveling due to a dropped detail.

That was a problem that required a more permanent solution than whatever technical truths I could creatively spin under pressure. I hoped Devlin had come up with something or, failing that, that he’d at least come up with a way to take the weight of that responsibility from my shoulders.

I downloaded the Texan’s email to local storage and, after a few seconds of consideration, performed the same action for the Mouse’s terse message. Then, I disconnected from the internet, took a deep breath, and headed back downstairs to confront Virginia. Every cell in my body prepared itself to deal with some new complication, except for the ones in my brain; those cells had worked themselves to death and were only capable of the simplest possible level of thought.

Devlin met me at the top of the staircase. He’d changed out of suit into an outfit similar to mine: comfortable jeans, sneakers, and a pale blue polo shirt. There was a noticeable bulge in one pocket that I recognized as his cell phone. One hand hung loosely at the other side of his body, dangling just in easy reach of the pocket I couldn’t see.

Please tell me that you’ve got some bright idea,” I said, as we started down the staircase.

Devlin shook his head. “Nothing yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.” He paused for a moment. “We’re going to figure something out, Sarah. You know that, right? It’s what we do; this is just another problem we haven’t come up with a solution for yet.”

He didn’t have to say what problem needed a solution.

She already thinks I’m married to Michel,” I said, “and I have no idea how long that’s going to hold up, considering he’s taking late night drives with Mila. When that falls apart, how long do you really think we’ll have before she starts in on the hard questions?”

Devlin shrugged. “So we’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t have the chance to come up with those hard questions, won’t we?”

And how are we supposed to do that?”

Devlin opened his mouth to respond, paused, then shook his head. “Let’s see where her head’s at before I say anything concrete. We don’t know what she told CJ or how much, but he at least knows that we were involved in the situation and that Virginia wanted to cover it up badly enough to authorize him to bribe two guards.”

What does he have to do with anything?”

I don’t know yet,” Devlin admitted. “But I’m not about to lose track of any of the moving pieces here if I don’t have to.”

Fair enough. My desire to dismiss CJ as a factor probably had more to do with personal feelings than logical thought. He’d moved like a cop at the Sovereign. Obviously, he’d left that line of work in favor of private employment, but there were always those men and women who couldn’t ever move fully back into civilian life. Would he run to the nearest station at the first sign of trouble? Or was his loyalty to my grandmother worth more to him?

We reached the bottom of the staircase and, after a second or two of silent consideration, decided to try the kitchen by mutual agreement. Devlin fell in step with me, matching footfall for footfall, without seeming to notice that he’d done anything at all.

I got an email,” I said. “Two, actually.”

From?”

I told him about the Texan’s polite, yet insistent, reiteration of demands.

You want to hear something strange?” Devlin asked. “I really want to like him. That’s weird, right?”

I know, right?” I allowed a tiny smile to appear on my face. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one affected by the Texan’s incongruous charm or his general aura of friendliness.

I know that he’s blackmailing us, but still. Seems like the kind of guy who you almost don’t mind being blackmailed by.”

I noticed that Devlin had said us, instead of me. Devlin didn’t have any personal skin in the game, which we both knew, but he was treating the threat to my real identity as a threat to his own person.

Besides that,” I added, “his goodwill could definitely become one of those assets we’d rather have on our side than working against us.”

Who was the other email from?”

There had been a few precious seconds of respite, but those seconds were wiped out with Devlin’s question. I related the Mouse’s urgent message and his desire to reestablish contact with the Community’s de facto leaders.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Devlin asked.

I stopped, just short of the kitchen. From where I stood, I could hear, but not see, Virginia rattling glasses and speaking to someone – CJ, presumably – in a low, throaty whisper that I couldn’t quite make out.

If I couldn’t hear her, it stood to reason that she wouldn’t be able to hear us. Still, I lowered my voice before answering. “For a given value of ‘good thing,’ sure. But there are…technical issues to consider.”

Like?”

I forced my mind to compile some of the possible problems and to translate those problems into terms Devlin would understand. “Three problems. One: if he’s being chased by some other hacker, that means his signatures have been identified. If someone got those, they could theoretically have access to his servers, all of his email addresses, any bank accounts he uses to handle money. So, the Mouse might not be able to reach out, without compromising all of us.”

He emailed you, though.”

He emailed me from the same account as last time,” I said, “which doesn’t make me feel great about how his other accounts are doing. There are a dozen legitimate reasons for him to stay with a familiar address, and only one illegitimate reason, but the threat of that one reason would be more than enough to keep him from rolling the dice.”

Devlin eyes glazed over slightly. He processed what I’d said, translated it through some internal process into a metaphor he understood, and then nodded. “Alright. What does that mean for us?”

If I want to get him in contact with the Community,” I said, “I’ll either have to arrange for him to get entirely new equipment that cannot possibly have been compromised yet or I’ll have to physically locate him and let him use my own computer to connect. Neither of which is particularly likely in the time frame I’ve got available to me, which is problem number two.”

Devlin nodded.

Problem number three,” I began, and then stopped before finishing the thought.

The volume of the conversation inside the kitchen went up a bit. I strained my ears to catch what strains I could.

seems like the kind of thing I ought to know, don’t you think?” Virginia asked. Even without the benefit of seeing her expression, I knew that she would have raised her eyebrows to the ceiling with that one.

Michel, not CJ, responded after a moment. “It was not my story to tell,” he said. “I was…only trying to do what Sarah thought was best.”

Sarah,” Virginia said, “does not always make the best decisions, and you ought to know that by now. Now, if she’s got herself in trouble with these…whoever they are…she needs to get herself out of trouble. And if she can’t do it herself, I certainly can.”

No!” Michel snapped. He didn’t sound angry, but the speed of his response and his accent combined to give the syllable more immediacy than it might otherwise have had.

No?” Virginia repeated. “No, you think I should let my baby granddaughter deal with this problem all on her own?”

I looked at Devlin. He nodded, in answer to a question I hadn’t quite worded in my own mind, and motioned for me to enter the kitchen ahead of him.

No,” I said, stepping into the room and raising my voice enough to forestall any cross-talk, “you should have trusted me when I said that the police cannot get involved. Not unless you want my friend to die in the process.”

Virginia looked up sharply at my entrance, focusing her gaze on me while Devlin slipped by in my wake. I used the beat of silence to examine the lay of the land. Michel sat at the kitchen table with an untouched mug in front of him, clearly uncomfortable as the sole focus of my grandmother’s attention. Mila leaned against a wall behind him, arms crossed under her breasts, and seeming utterly bored with everything. I’d seen her in action often enough to recognize that her disinterested posture was just an act. In reality, she was probably calculating the distance between where she stood, where CJ hovered to one side of Virginia, and wondering exactly how much damage she’d need to do to incapacitate the man without causing permanent harm.

Sam, for some reason, was lounging on a counter top just to her left. He wore the customary lazy awareness of most cats, even as he stretched out his claws in an extravagant yawn. Somehow, the appearance of the fluffy white cat did nothing to detract from the very real sense of imminent danger radiating off of Mila’s body.

How much did you tell him?” I asked Virginia, indicating CJ with a bob of my head. While I had the conversational momentum, it seemed prudent to follow Devlin’s earlier suggestion: if there were going to be more players in the game, it was better that I know about them now than later.

Virginia exchanged a look with CJ. “He knows what I know,” she said finally. “Which isn’t all that much, by the way.”

That’s because I can’t tell you that much,” I said. “Do you understand why I didn’t want to get you involved to begin with? Really understand?”

No,” Virginia said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help you, Sarah.”

By bringing in the cops, even after I specifically said that wasn’t an option?”

Virginia shook her head. “Who said anything about the cops?”

I blinked.

I’ve been working in the city for a long time,” Virginia continued, “and the company has all sorts of contracts.”

Are you…” I paused, swallowed, started again. “Are you saying that you’d just hire someone to take care of this whole thing for us?”

Not for you, plural,” Virginia said. “No offense to you, Michel.”

Michel graciously waved her concern away.

But for you, Sarah? If the people who are after your friend are as bad as you say they are, then absolutely. No police officers, since you’re so convinced that would end badly, but what’s wrong with hiring some…outside experts?”

I allowed myself a few seconds to consider the possibilities. Mila and I had discussed her mercenary friends occasionally over the last few months. Where I was steeped in hacker culture and Devlin had numerous thieving contacts, Mila had spent her career surrounded by hard men with anger management issues. Using the Lady’s seemingly bottomless coffers, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to get a team or two in motion. They didn’t even have to be thieves, in the customary sense. If all the hired guns did was stir up trouble, they could have diverted resources from our true targets.

But, after a moment, I reached the same conclusion with my grandmother’s proposal that Mila had offered in response to my own suggestions. Eventually, even a mercenary with no curiosity or imagination would ultimately begin to wonder why dramatic heists were consistently pulled off while they were dealing with insurgents or whatever. When they figured out that they were being used as decoys, they’d inevitably want more money for their work. Which was fine, in and of itself. But, with that money, they would also start asking questions and there was no telling where those questions would lead them.

And, even if that hadn’t been enough of a reason to keep the team as small as possible, we couldn’t forget that the Magi had people everywhere. Any team we reached out to could be in their employ – either directly or through a string of subordinate groups – and the first transfer of fund could be all the Magi needed to zero in on our little group of intrepid lawbreakers. The potential rewards – distraction, extra firepower, maybe even a little bit of a smokescreen to disguise our true goals – had been vastly outweighed by the risks.

With my grandmother, the equation was weighted even more heavily. I, at least, knew about the Magi and was gaining an appreciation for exactly how far their criminal network spread. If Virginia treated them like some small-time smugglers, blackmailers, or extorters, they would inevitably put her in their cross hairs. I might be able to slip the noose, given enough warning, but Virginia Ford was too firmly rooted in the local ecosystem to do the same.

I couldn’t tell her all of that, though. So, after a second or two of struggling to form coherent thoughts and plans, I decided to take the conversation in another direction. “That’s not the kind of thing that could help him anyway,” I said. “And it certainly wouldn’t help me. Mila already handles the sort of thing.”

Was that a compliment?” Mila asked. She didn’t move a muscle from her position, except to raise her eyebrow and tilt her head slightly.

For whatever a compliment is worth in this situation,” I said.

Mila gave me a tight smile. “Since the two of you decided to go rogue tonight, I think I’ll take that compliment and use it against you the next time a wild hare crawls up your ass.”

I returned the smile, with as much expression and warmth.

What would, then?” Virginia asked, dragging my attention back to her. “You don’t want the police involved, fine. You don’t want any…other help, which doesn’t make any sense to me, but let’s say I take you at your word. You don’t expect me to just sit by and let you go back into danger for your friend, do you?”

I shook my head. “You’re covering with us at the Sovereign,” I said. “That’s worth a lot more than I can even begin to explain.”

And it isn’t enough, Sarah. If even half of what you told me was true, then you need a lot more help than that.”

What I’d told her didn’t measure up to even a third or fourth of the danger presented by the Magi, but that was information Virginia wasn’t in a position to handle. Besides, I’d been hoping that she’d ask that exact question anyway.

I’ve been working with substandard equipment,” I said, “and that’s not going to cut it anymore. I don’t have the time to hit the store and wait for computer parts to be shipped, but…”

Virginia cut me off. “Write me a list of what you need. I’ll have it delivered in the morning.”

You don’t even know what I -”

If you need something so that you can be done with whatever you got yourself into, or so that you can help your friend, then I want to help you get it,” Virginia said.

I feigned reluctance as I nodded. Then, I turned to Devlin.

Really?” Devlin asked. “Now is when you wanted to deal with that?”

I shrugged in response. “Only two problems, then.”

Chapter 51

In the whirlwind of activity that followed my revelation, Devlin and I couldn’t seem to find any time to talk to each other. Only a few moments after I finished relaying the edited version of the last six months to my grandmother, local police officers stepped out of the elevator and onto the fifteenth floor. Virginia stepped forward to intercept them, offering an utterly unbelievable lie about faulty security systems as an excuse for the alarm, but the officers were either personally familiar with the Ford family or they’d been specifically told not to push too hard against anyone with as much political power as Virginia possessed. Either way, they didn’t ask too many questions. When the two guards from upstairs – the ones that Barrett had subdued and restrained – returned, accompanied by CJ, and backed up my grandmother’s story, that seemed to be the end of the matter.

At some point, someone was going to discover that Barrett had performed his own high-altitude robbery. Whatever he’d been after would undoubtedly be missed and, when that crime came to light, I expected law enforcement to send someone with a little more curiosity to vet my grandmother’s version of events. However, as I wasn’t planning to even be in the country in the next forty-eight hours, I was content to put that problem on the back burner.

Virginia hadn’t committed a crime, after all, and it wasn’t likely that anyone would think to specifically ask her about any trouble that her granddaughter might have gotten herself into. No matter what pressure they put her under, as long as the team managed to get away from the area, there quite simply wasn’t any way to disprove anything she claimed to have happened.

When the officers finally relented and left the Sovereign, Virginia ushered Devlin and I over to a private elevator. From there, we were bundled into a waiting limousine – with a different driver, I noticed absently – and driven away from the building at the highest legal speed anyone could manage in downtown Buckhead.

I expected there to be questions. In her position, I probably would have had dozens of questions. But Virginia asked nothing and, in the face of her silent contemplation, I couldn’t find the courage to speak first. Devlin was quiet also, but at least I understood his reasons. As I’d taken the initiative, allowing me to make any further calls on what information to share was the only real move he had available. Anything else risked contradicting the narrative or inadvertently offering Virginia more information than she really needed to have.

At the earliest convenience, I intended to sit down every member of the team and hammer out every last detail of the cover story. Until that point, though, the best move was silence or, if silence proved impossible, speaking as little as possible.

The thought of Mila and Michel was like a cattle prod to the dormant, poleaxed areas of my brain. We hadn’t talked to them at all since initiating the job and, as far as I knew, Mila was sharpening her knives in preparation for a panicked rescue mission. Michel would only be able to keep her more violent instincts from asserting themselves for so long and every minute that passed without an update was only going to push her closer and closer to action.

I checked Virginia. Her face was turned away from me, aimed out of the nearest window, as she thought about…something…in contemplative silence. CJ, seated next her, stroked her hand with a casualness that surprised me. How long had the two of them been seeing each other? Was it more than just – ugh – sex with them?

I threw that thought, along with any other corollary visual images that might have materialized, directly into the trash bin. This wasn’t the time. I focused, instead, on my surroundings. The limousine’s interior wasn’t cavernous – I’d been in larger, more luxurious vehicles before – but it certainly wasn’t small. My encrypted smartphone lay inside my purse, which was on the floor between my feet. I didn’t think I could retrieve it without drawing either Virginia’s or CJ’s attention. If they saw what I was doing, I might have been able to reference Michel, claim that I needed to let him know that I was alive and well, but it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.

I bumped Devlin instead. He responded with a lifted eyebrow and a barely perceptible frown. Using my eyes, I indicated my purse and then his pants pockets. Devlin arched the eyebrow even steeper. I repeated the process two more times, widening my eyes for emphasis, before he got it.

He slipped one hand into his pocket and eased his phone free just enough to easily navigate the phone. Without any apparent difficulty, he entered a short message into his phone using only one thumb. There were typos, but the text wasn’t going to be indecipherable: Were fine Problems with Vrgna. Xplain l8r.

I wondered how Mila would react. Apparently, Devlin didn’t think her reaction would be a pleasant one; he directed the message to Michel, instead. After a minuscule nod from me, he pressed the green button and sent the message out.

With that done, there was nothing to do but wait. I couldn’t talk to Devlin about our stories without casting suspicion on my carefully woven version of the truth. I didn’t want to provoke my grandmother into asking questions that I might not have answers for yet. And I didn’t know enough about CJ to guess how he’d react, what he was thinking, or even if Virginia was going to tell him the “truth” later on. I couldn’t use my phone without running the risk of increased attention and I absolutely couldn’t use my tablet to start sorting through the information contained on my treasure trove of stolen hard drives.

I waited, anxious and barely wrestling down the worst products of my imagination, until we made it back to the mansion. A journey that had only taken forty-five minutes, at the absolute outside, had felt like several excruciating hours. When our driver opened my door, I stepped out of the limousine’s stifling atmosphere with undisguised relief.

The two of you probably want to change, don’t you?” Virginia asked. It was the first thing she’d said to me, directly, since offering us her help. Her tone was unreadable. Or, more accurately, I was unable to read it. Devlin would have had greater success and I made a mental note to ask him about that later on.

Without any additional context, I decided to cleave to the truth, except when it threatened to reveal anything about my ongoing association with various, international criminal syndicates or open Interpol investigations or anything like that.

It’d be nice,” I said. “It’s late, after all, and it isn’t like I want to wear this getup all night long.”

Virginia offered me a smile so thin that her lips seemed to disappear. “Go and change. If you didn’t have a chance to bring anything else to wear, I can send someone out to pick up clothes for you.”

I shook my head. “I’ve got jeans and some t-shirts. Devlin, did you have a chance to pick up anything?”

He nodded, perhaps a little too energetically. “Nothing fancy,” he said, with the faint hint of an Irish brogue. “Just something to wear around town, if you know what I mean.”

Well,” Virginia said, “why don’t the two of you get out of those fancy clothes and then come on downstairs for dinner?”

I resisted the urge to check the time. I’d never been a Girl Scout, but I was pretty sure the position of the moon in the night sky implied a time far too late for dinner. “I ate at the fundraiser,” I said, automatically. As soon as the words left my mouth, I immediately regretted them.

Virginia’s thin smile broadened. “Is that so?” Even I could pick up on the high level of sarcasm contained in just those three words. “Why don’t you come down and keep me and CJ company, then? I was awful busy with those donors and the speech, you know?”

Pinned to the spot, all I could do was nod my agreement. Virginia and CJ entered the mansion and, after the driver pulled away, that left Devlin and me alone in the driveway.

As soon as I was confident that we weren’t being watched or listened to, I turned to Devlin and spoke in a needlessly low voice. “Be honest: how badly am I messing this up?”

He gave our surroundings a cursory, subtle examination before answering. “If you ask me,” he said, “you’re doing just fine. We’ll have to fill Michel and Mila in on the details, obviously, but that shouldn’t be too hard.”

It only has to hold up for a day or two,” I said. “After that, we’ll be out of the area and chasing down the Mouse, wherever the hell he disappeared to.”

Devlin opened his mouth to respond, then closed it slowly. He didn’t actually speak for another fifteen or twenty seconds. “If this story falls apart, then you’re only kicking this problem down the road. You realize that, don’t you?”

I blinked my confusion back at him.

I don’t even know your grandmother that well,” Devlin explained, “but she doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’s just going to take something at face value. Everything you told her is technically true, and any research she does into the finer points will be backed up by news articles and the like. But if any aspect of your story falls apart?”

He didn’t finish the thought and, when I allowed myself to consider the long-term implications of what I’d done, I realized that he didn’t need to finish it. Devlin was right. I’d been thinking strictly in the short term when I’d crafted the story for Virginia. But she was never going to forget what I’d said. As long as I was employed by the Lady – and I didn’t expect that to change anytime in the immediate future – I would be in some form of danger. That would necessitate traveling from country to country, participating in a coup here or a massive act of tax fraud there.

That was fine. That was, more or less, the lifestyle I’d chosen to live.

But Virginia now knew, from my own lips, that I was living in a very dangerous lifestyle. Even if she kept what I’d told her from my parents and sister, she would be keeping an eye on me in the future. I wouldn’t be able to slip away to deal with issues without attracting her attention and the type of surveillance that only an extremely wealthy, concerned grandmother could bring to bear. And maybe I could slip that surveillance. I’d thrown tails before. But if Virginia ever caught so much as a hint that I’d left out key context, she’d dedicate herself to digging up the truth.

So, I’d have to lie. Or selectively report the truth, whatever. Either way, I’d locked myself into a life of deception. One hiccup could be the thread Virginia needed, in order to start unraveling the whole mess.

Some aspect of my dawning comprehension must have registered on my face, because Devlin stepped closer to me and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Maybe it’s not going to be that bad,” he said soothingly. “Maybe we’ll wrap things up with the Lady and the Magi, and you can go back to the civilian life.”

That was a possibility, albeit a slim one. Something about that line of thought bothered me, though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the idea of abandoning the team felt…wrong.

I spent a few moments attempting to pin down the origin of that odd sensation. When no answer presented itself, I sighed and shook my head. “We’re still on the clock,” I said to Devlin. “Let’s get changed and deal with the mess in front of us before it gets out of hand. The last thing we need is Virginia thinking that I need a professional team of bodyguards every time I leave her sight.”

Do you think she’d really do that?”

I didn’t think she’d get involved with someone a quarter her age,” I said. “So I’m putting a temporary kibosh on any speculation or assumptions.”

Devlin couldn’t quite conceal a chuckle, which almost certainly meant he’d intended me to see it. Instead of getting irritated, I felt a smile appear on my face in response. Temporarily uplifted, the two of us entered the mansion and headed to our respective rooms to change out of formal wear and into more casual attire.

It occurred to me that it’d be easier to run away in jeans and sneakers than a dress and heels. I didn’t want to run away from Virginia, as that would trigger a shit storm of cataclysmic proportions with the rest of the Ford family, but I couldn’t stop the thought from presenting itself.

I didn’t want to leave my bag upstairs, but I also didn’t want to drag the weight around with me. I compromised by removing the tablet, USB cord, and the vast majority of hard drives. Those, I tossed onto the bed, to be dealt with later. Then, I took the time to send Michel a more substantive series of messages about the events at the Sovereign. I didn’t know how long it would take him and Mila to return to the mansion, but keeping him in the loop felt like a good idea. Whenever he returned, I didn’t want him to walk into a situation without some basic information.

When I returned my phone to my bag, I happened to glance in the direction of the items I’d removed. Barely visible underneath the heap of electronics and computer parts, a blue light flashed insistently on my tablet. That meant I’d missed an email at some point since leaving the server room and returning to the mansion.

My mental reserves were beyond drained and, just for an instant, I wanted to ignore the message. That moment passed quickly, though. If the Community had decided, for whatever reason, to accelerate their timetable, that was information I needed to possess. If the Lady had come across additional intelligence that might help me locate the Mouse, avoid Caelum, or pull off some magical combination of the two, I couldn’t afford to let that email wait any longer than strictly necessary.

Wearily, I walked over to the tablet, unlocked it, and navigated to the program responsible for curating the emails I received at all of my various accounts. I had, in fact, missed a few emails in the last hour. An address I didn’t recognize had reached out to the corporate email address my parents had forced on me. I opened it and skimmed the contents.

Miss Ford:

I’ve got to give it to you. When you and your boyfriend decide to make a ruckus, you damn sure do exactly that. Not that I’ve got any real issues with how you go about your business, so long as I get what’s mine.

Way I figure, you’re gonna need some time to get me what I’m looking for. I’ll give you a week to get everything all neat and orderly before you send me what you found. Any longer than that, and I can’t guarantee that you get the same protection all of my sources get.

Looking forward to a productive chat.

The email wasn’t signed. A quick check at the address didn’t immediately trigger any alarm bells, so I assumed that the Texan was one of the only people in the Underworld uninterested in puns and clever word games.

As blackmail messages went, he was a lot more polite than I would have expected. If I was reading it correctly, he was treating this entire affair as a simple business arrangement. There didn’t appear to any animosity on his point or, surprisingly, the faintest amount of personal interest in my identity. It was a chip he planned to exchange for a chip with greater value to him, simple as that. The fact that he’d been responsible for rushing what should have been a simple infiltration job – which had, in turn, led directly to my grandmother and her boy-toy catching us with stolen goods – didn’t factor into his thinking.

Weirdly, that made it easier for me to like him. God, the longer I dealt with these criminal figures, the weirder my criteria for ‘enjoyable company’ became.

The second email had been sent to an account with my customary screen name, accompanied by a random selection of numbers. I didn’t recognize the specific email address until a second glance: it was the same address that the Mouse had reached out to, twice, in Tangiers.

My heart skipped several beats. Then, I sat down on the edge of the bed and opened the message.

I think he found me. Tried to run, but it didn’t work. I need help. You, the Community…someone. I want to come in. Can you make that happen?

Again, no signature. Where the Texan’s unsigned email had been par for the course, there was nothing infinitely more ominous about the same action coming from the Mouse. A chill went down my spine and I made no effort to suppress it.

I read the message twice, making sure that I hadn’t missed some obvious cipher in the text itself, then checked the timestamp. He’d messaged me while we’d been in the limousine, returning from the Sovereign. Wherever he was, whatever he was running from, he’d neglected to attach a reliable means of communicating with him.

On a lark, I replied to the email with the IP address of relatively secure chatroom that we could use, but I didn’t expect him to receive the message. Each time he sent me something from the same Gmail account, the Mouse increased the risk to both of us. If someone was stalking his traffic, they could easily identify people he commonly reached out to. If he was smart – and the Mouse was definitely smart – he’d delete the account entirely and move on to something else before reaching out again.

I didn’t have time for him to do that, though. Sometime within the next two days, the Community was going to launch a war against the person hunting the Mouse. If they did that, it wouldn’t matter what email address he used to ask for help the next time.

At that point, no one would be in any position to help him.

Chapter 50

More than almost anything, I longed to call Michel and Mila to rescue Devlin and me. Of course, I couldn’t quite do that with my grandmother’s heavy gaze on me at all times and I wasn’t sure if pulling them into the line of fire, so to speak, was the smartest way to play this out. She’d seen the hard drives, yes, but she didn’t know enough to tell that they’d been stolen from the Sovereign’s server floor. She would, but she didn’t yet. That meant there was still time for me to slip away to some hotel outside of Buckhead, where I could set up whatever electronics I could get my hands on and get to the work of solving the problems this evening had presented to me. Summoning my bodyguard and my fake husband/real getaway driver wiped out any chance of pulling a relatively clean blow-off.

And I was scared. It wasn’t rational, considering the enemies I’d made in the underworld over just the last few months, but fear wasn’t always a rational reaction to stress. Since glimpsing into my bag, she hadn’t spoken a single word to me. She shook hands and soothed tempers on the fifteenth floor, calmly ushering the donors and dilettantes toward the elevators. She was the very soul of calm professionalism as she maintained an air of easy grace. I doubted that any of the men or women who fell in her eyesight caught a glimpse of anything other than the consummate host.

I knew her, though, far better than anyone else at the fundraiser. She wasn’t calm; she wasn’t even angry, which would have been easier to deal with. She was calculating: the worst possible state of mind for her to be in, considering the secrets in my head that could quite literally end lives.

Devlin had only spent a few hours with Virginia, so even his considerable prowess at reading people probably didn’t extend to a complete model of my grandmother. He did, however, know me extraordinarily well. While he couldn’t read her mood, he could absolutely pick up on my rising agitation.

While Virginia kept the donors happy, ensuring that their money would continue to flow into my sister’s foundation, Devlin moved a little closer to me and spoke in a low whisper. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “It was just a second and I thought that she didn’t have an angle, but -”

I shook my head and cut him off. “We don’t know what she thinks, Dev.”

But we know what she saw.” He paused. “I can take the heat, you know. If I run right now, she’ll just assume that I tricked you into leading me upstairs.”

And how would you have gotten away from me long enough to make it up several flights of stairs and steal a bag full of hard drives without me noticing your absence? Either I’m an idiot for getting played, blind for not noticing any sudden and unexplained disappearance on your part, or I’m complicit.” I shook my head again. “Virginia won’t believe anything but the third option.”

How do you want to play this, then?”

I turned to look at him. Devlin’s icy professionalism had retreated, leaving the compassionate and concerned Devlin standing in front of me. I wasn’t sure if I needed Devlin’s ruthless focus or his understanding more at the moment. After a brief pause for consideration, I ruled in favor of the latter.

This is your area,” I said. “What would you do?”

Caught redhanded with stolen goods, inside the building where those goods were stolen?” He shrugged one shoulder in a minute gesture, hopefully too slight for Virginia or CJ to notice from where they stood. “I would have run away a while ago. We could still do that…but that would cause more problems in your life than it would solve, so that’s out of the question.”

In the space of an eyeblink, Devlin had assessed the same problem as me, but he’d reached the same conclusion in a fraction of the time. It wasn’t the time to feel irritated at him, but irritation rose up anyway.

Yes, Devlin,” I said, through gritted teeth, “I am aware of that. Other options?”

He glanced down into the bag and its contents. “If you aren’t going to run,” he said finally, “then you’ll have to tell the truth.”

I’d been keeping track of Devlin in my peripheral vision. At that suggestion, I couldn’t help but turn my body entirely to face him. “What?”

Not like that,” he said. He raised both hands – neither one came higher than his waist, but I could still track the movement – and pointed the palms in my direction. “Hear me out before you yank out my spine.”

I took a deep breath. And then another. There weren’t many people left on the fifteenth floor. Whatever we were going to do, it was critical that Devlin and I figure out a game plan now, or else we’d have to play off of each other without the benefit of preparation. That was doable, but it wasn’t the kind of effort I felt capable of. Just the events of the last hour or so had drained my mental batteries to the breaking point.

You don’t have to tell her the whole truth,” Devlin said. “But I’m sure there’s some version of the truth that covers why you might have wanted these hard drives and that you couldn’t explain to her before coming here.”

I can’t think of…” I trailed off. Smoking and straining, my mental gears began to turn again, connecting earlier conversations with possible justifications I could use when my grandmother inevitably started to ask questions.

Devlin must have been able to see the light bulb at the exact moment it popped into existence above my head. “Do you think that’ll work? You’ll have to cut it close; you do know that, right?”

I’ve seen you do it often enough,” I countered. I left out how often I’d been shocked at his ability to thread the needle because that was information he didn’t need to have and that I didn’t need to consider.

Devlin opened his mouth to respond, but whatever he was about to say died on his lips. The last of the guests stepped onto an elevator, smiling broadly at Virginia. When the doors closed, she spun around and walked over to where Devlin and I stood. Her heels clicked against the floor in a precise rhythm, like a metronome. The effect was unnerving.

According to the guards upstairs,” Virginia began, “there isn’t any threat remaining in the building. No one’s downstairs and the two guards working upstairs – just between here and the residential floors – didn’t report seeing anyone. Anyone else, that is.”

She raised her eyebrow and allowed the silence to fill the room. CJ stood almost a foot behind her, as if he might avoid direct attention in Virginia’s shadow. He wasn’t entirely wrong.

Virginia,” I said, “I promise, there’s a very good explanation for all of this.”

Her eyebrow arched even further up, until it was practically diagonal. “I’m listening.”

It took me a second to come up with that very good explanation. When an answer presented itself, I sent up a silent prayer in hopes that I’d somehow grown at least a little better at deception. “Long story short,” I said, “I ran into some trouble overseas. A lot of trouble and…it wasn’t the kind of thing I could tell anyone about.”

The stern, serious glare on Virginia’s face softened slightly. She still resembled an avenging angel more than a human being, but the faintest hints of concern were visible around the edges of that mask. “Trouble? What’re you talking about?”

I took a deep breath, ostensibly to prepare myself. In reality, I just needed the time to put the finishing touches on my last-minute fabrication. “There are…people…overseas that have more than a passing interest in the kind of artwork that Devlin and I work with. People that don’t like to take no for an answer.”

Instead of finishing the thought, I allowed her to fill in the blanks for herself. It was a trick I’d picked up from Devlin: nothing was scarier than the worst thing your target could imagine. Virginia’s own imagination could paint a picture of what sorts of ‘people’ I was talking about. Besides, the Magi were interested in artwork…probably. And they certainly weren’t the type of people who accepted anything other than obeisance.

Virginia turned her head slightly and spoke over her shoulder. “CJ?”

Yes, uh…Miss Ford?”

Go get a report from the guards upstairs,” Virginia said. “There are some discretionary funds in the company’s accounts that we can use to keep things like this quiet. You can take care of that for me, can’t you?”

Confusion registered briefly on CJ’s face, followed immediately by understanding. “If that’s what you want to do, ma’am. But what will you…?”

My granddaughter and I need to have a talk,” Virginia said. “Desperately.”

Of course. I’ll go get that handled right now.” CJ walked past my grandmother and me, while studiously avoiding my eyes. When he reached Devlin, he paused. “Are you coming?”

I’m more involved than this than I’d like,” Devlin said.

I noticed that he was still clinging to the accent. He probably didn’t want to abandon a useful cover, if not absolutely necessary. I amended the story in my head appropriately. If he wanted to play at being Irish for a little while longer, I could allow him the fiction. It wouldn’t disrupt things too badly.

CJ bobbed his head up and down twice, then disappeared into the stairwell leading upstairs. When he was gone, Virginia turned her attention back to Devlin and me. “Alright,” she said. “Now, explain to me why I’m buying the silence of those men upstairs. And start from the beginning.”

I did not, in fact, start from the beginning, mostly because I wasn’t sure exactly where ‘the beginning’ was. Did she want me to tell her about the first time I hacked into a network, or the ‘after-school projects’ I’d amused myself with when she was busy handling company business? Or did she want to know about my college years, when I’d first grown to accept exactly how privileged I’d been and when I’d decided to use my unique skills to actually help people?

Probably not.

But what about those early years, when I’d been limited only to the smallest possible intrusions? Or the close calls I’d narrowly escaped, primarily by changing my username and methods a half dozen times in the first six months of my criminal life? Did she want to know about the Mouse and how he’d guided me through the finer points of digital crime, or how he’d introduced me to the Community and the highest echelon of technological thieves?

Because that was too much to tell in the short time we had available, even if I’d been willing to tell it.

Then there was the huge chunk of my life when Devlin had been a central figure. We’d bounced all around the globe, pilfering and plundering from the richest with impunity. Somewhere along the way, we’d fallen in love and gotten married. That had been wonderful beyond words, until he’d made that last fatal mistake and I’d been left with no choice but to leave him. That decision had definitely been a formative one and it was no doubt responsible for a lot of my choices to date.

I wasn’t ready to share that story, yet. I didn’t even think that our story was over, so how could I talk about it like a historical reference?

Where I did start, instead, was London. I told her about my work surveying the security of the Museum of London, until someone broke in and stole the barbarian’s crown. After that, I’d asked Michel to join us in the city and hired a bodyguard, for my personal protection. I talked about how I’d spent some time ministering to the poorest and most indigent of the city’s population which had, as it turned out, put me in touch with the local law enforcement for some period of time. And I told Virginia all about a singular manuscript I’d been contracted to acquire, only to discover that a relatively minor nobleman had gotten his hands on it first.

What did he say when you made him an offer?” Virginia asked.

He…made us a counter offer,” I said. “But neither Devlin or I was really interested in taking him up on it.”

So whoever your client was didn’t get what she was after?”

Devlin took that question. “Yes and no. She’s got a lot of demands.”

Virginia chewed over that technical truth for so long that I thought she would realize my game. After fifteen seconds, she nodded and gestured for me to continue my story.

According to the story I told Virginia, we realized something else was going on after the nobleman’s house was burgled. When that same nobleman had been quite publicly executed, the four of us had collectively decided to get the hell out of London while whatever was going on was going on.

But then,” I said, “I reached out to a friend of mine in the…in the art community.”

Acquisitions?” Virginia asked. “Like you?”

I shook my head. “Not exactly like me. Anyway, I was looking for a specific piece and he put out feelers for me. Only…”

Only now he’s in trouble? The same trouble you were trying to get away from?”

From a certain perspective – namely, third person – I was telling her the exact literal truth. If she bothered to do any research, every inch of my story would be verified by news reports and live video. It wasn’t as though I could very well tell her exactly what thieves had robbed a museum, kidnapped a girl, blown up a building, stolen a train, and indirectly led to the murder of a nobleman in broad daylight.

Even if I had told her, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have believed a word of the story anyway. I’d lived it and occasionally couldn’t believe it.

Alright,” Virginia said. “Let’s say that I believe you. What does your friend have to do with those hard drives?”

I turned the problem around in my head, examined it from a few different mental directions, and decided upon a path. “Some other people who work in the same field want to help my friend, but they can’t go to the police or anything like that.”

Why not?” Virginia held up a hand and stopped me from answering. “No, nevermind. That was a stupid question. If they’re out there blowing up barons, nothing’s going to stop them from taking out a few art dealers.”

I marveled at how well she was taking everything. It wasn’t the full, unvarnished story, but it was damned close and, thus far, Virginia’s only reaction had been the occasional question.

The guys who are after my friend want him to find something for them,” I said. For the last half hour, that lie was the farthest thing I’d said from the truth. Despite the fact that he was blackmailing me, I almost liked the Texan. Besides, I was positive that he wasn’t involved in the hunt for the Mouse. “And since he wouldn’t be in trouble at all if I hadn’t asked him to help…”

You feel like you’re in trouble, too,” Virginia finished. “My Lord, Sarah, you really stepped in it this time.”

I gave her a helpless shrug. “I didn’t want to tell you, because I didn’t want to get anyone else involved. I was just trying to protect you.”

Virginia snorted. “So, instead, you used me as a cover to get into the Sovereign and hoped that no one would notice a dozen hard drives missing from upstairs?”

I’d been hoping to go about this another way,” I admitted. “This isn’t the kind of thing I do often, Virginia.”

That’s for damn sure,” she said.

Since that had been the thing closest to the truth I’d said in the last hour, it took some effort to step down on my indignation.

So?” I asked. “Are you going to call the police on us? Or do you just want us to put these back because I can…I can find another way to help him, if you aren’t comfortable with it.”

There were other ways. They were just more difficult and, with the dwindling clock, we’d have less time to plan things. But I’d grown to expect dangerous, half-cocked situations to develop around me.

Tell on you?” Virginia laughed and shook her head. “You and your husband are out here trying to help a friend and you think I’m going to tell on you? How can I help?”

…I hadn’t expected that.

Chapter 49

My brain froze up.  Any clever ideas that might have found their way to the surface were immediately trapped beneath a thick layer of mental frost and it was all I could do to gape up at my grandmother, standing in the doorway over me with a curious expression on her face.

 

Even if my higher functions hadn’t chosen that exact instant to go on strike, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with a story quickly enough to forestall disaster.  My short-term abilities had already been taxed to the limit, what with the appearance of Barrett, the veritable glut of servers stored up on the twentieth floor, and the interruption of power to the Sovereign.  Mentally speaking, I was running on empty, and the task of convincing my grandmother that she wasn’t seeing exactly what she was, in fact, seeing was simply a bridge too far.

 

For me, at least.  For Devlin, however, it was probably just another day at the office.

 

Well, this is certainly embarrassing,” he said smoothly, applying the Irish accent without missing a beat.  “I thought we could get back before you finished up with your speech, but I guess that was just wishful thinking.  Good speech, by the way.”

 

Virginia blinked.  I could practically see her attempting to square Devlin’s cavalier attitude with the situation she’d walked in on.  “Thank you,” she said eventually, taking great care to stretch both syllables out as long as she could.  “That’s not answering my question, though, now is it?”

 

Well,” Devlin said, “there’s an artist that I’m…well, let’s say that I’m a fan of his work.  And I remember hearing somewhere that he had a few pieces located in your building.”

 

It’s not my building,” Virginia said immediately. 

 

It wasn’t important that she’d refuted Devlin’s claim.  What mattered was that she responding to him automatically.  As long as he could control the conversation and keep things as casual as possible, there was a chance that she’d be more inclined to accept whatever explanation he was building up to.  I’d seen him pull similar tricks on security guards while in the middle of a job; on police officers who would occasionally help him break into cars or load up stolen goods; and once, damnably, on me. 

 

Despite the morass of negative emotion that one thought threatened to unleash, I still couldn’t help but be impressed at the audacity.  Only Devlin would have the sheer temerity to attempt such a brazen lie, while literally pushing his ill-gotten goods underneath the desk with one foot.

 

I’ll be honest,” Devlin was saying, “I forget that this isn’t the actual Ford headquarters sometimes.  But you know the artist I was thinking of, right?”

 

Murphy,” Virginia said after a moment.  “You’re talking about Murphy?”

 

I had no clue who Murphy was, whether that was a first or last name, or even if it was a real person.  It wouldn’t have taken very long to Google my way to a satisfactory answer, but Googling was, of course, out of the question at the moment.

 

Devlin clapped his hands together.  He was careful to keep the noise down, however.  “That’s the one, yes!  A client of mine reached out to ask if I could get my hands on any of Murphy’s work and, when your lovely granddaughter mentioned that there might be some originals in the building, I thought I might be able to sneak a peek.  You aren’t offended that we stepped out for a little bit, are you?”

 

Virginia quite clearly did not have the foggiest idea how to react.  While she puzzled over the absolute load of BS that Devlin had just dropped on her shoulders, my own faculties began to thaw and resume normal activity.  Even convincing my grandmother that nothing nefarious was going on wouldn’t be quite enough to resolve our problems.  We still needed to get the bag of hard drives out of the building, preferably before the guards on the nineteenth floor managed to free themselves or someone else from higher up in the Sovereign discovered whatever crime Barrett had scaled up the building in order to commit.  I needed to rifle through the information we’d acquired and, hopefully, come away with more information on the Mouse and something that would satisfy the Texan. 

 

And, at some point, I was going to need to figure out some way to either evade or defeat Caelum.  But that was a long way down the metaphorical road.

 

I’m not offended,” Virginia said.  “Just surprised.  You could have asked me for a tour if you wanted to see my old office, you know.”

 

She was buying it?  It took all of my self-control not to openly pump my fist.  I settled for a very, very minor version, with my body angled so that no one else in the room could see it.

 

I didn’t want to presume,” Devlin said.  He betrayed no sign of shock or disbelief at his own success.  Either he’d be completely confident that he’d be able to snow Virginia or he was pretending to be completely confident.  I wasn’t sure what the difference was, sometimes. “After all, you’re already letting us stay at your house and you seemed busy with all of the donors downstairs.”

 

Virginia waved a dismissive hand.  “The donors will be just fine without me around to kiss up to.”

 

Maybe we can come back when the office is open then,” Devlin suggested.  “If she doesn’t mind, Sarah and I can just head back downstairs and rejoin the party.”

 

Virginia shrugged.  “You’re already here,” she said.  “Might as well look at the painting, if it means that much to you.”

 

She pointed at a wall in the room.  Devlin and I looked in that direction, almost in unison.  The painting on the wall was a modern work, which generally wasn’t the sort of thing I enjoyed.  Surprisingly, I didn’t know all that much about Devlin’s personal taste, but I suspected that we agreed on that point.  That being said, there was a certain allure to the painting.  A black girl, dressed in a flowing white dress, was represented in stark simplicity.  There was no context to the painting, no other details to distract from the striking image. 

 

Sally Hemmings,” Virginia said.  “That’s the original piece.  I had to practically beg the artist for it, but I’m a good negotiator.  What do you think?”

 

Exactly what I thought before,” Devlin said, with a hint of awe in his voice.  “It’s just…beautiful.  The brushwork is…well, he’s as good a painter as I’ve been told.” 

 

Virginia cleared her throat.  “Exactly,” she said.  “And you said you’d heard about him where?”

 

Just around,” Devlin said.  “A few clients had intimated that they wanted to get their hands on this one, but you beat them to the punch.  I don’t suppose you’d be willing to sell it?”

 

For you, considering how sweet you’re being?  I’d be happy to,” Virginia said.  She paused for a moment.  “Except that the original work was thirty feet tall and made entirely out of steel.”

 

Devlin’s attention snapped back to Virginia.  “I…what?”

 

Todd Murphy,” Virginia continued, “is a mixed-media artist.  The Sally Hemmings piece was solid steel.  This is just a reproduction I commissioned, because I liked the original work so much.  So, I’ll ask again.  What are the two of you doing up here, in the dark, hiding behind the door to my office like a pair of schoolchildren?”

 

My mouth opened and closed, failing utterly to produce a single sound that might provide some cover.  There was surely some story that Devlin could create, or that I could offer, that would diffuse the laser-like attention of my overly perceptive grandmother.

 

My mind, however, was still busily working its way back up to traditional operating parameters when it landed on an inconsistency. Virginia had entered the room, after talking – judging by her tone, it was closer to flirting – with someone…

 

CJ?” I raised my voice a little bit.  Not loud enough to carry, but just loud enough that it would reach outside of the office.  “What are you hiding for?”

 

A few seconds ticked by before CJ peeked his head around the doorframe.  As soon as he’d seen us, he must have ducked back out of sight while Virginia took the lead in the conversation.

 

I was just…uh…”  He trailed off into meaningless sounds.

 

CJ and I were just getting some air,” Virginia said quickly.  A little too quickly, in my opinion.  The sharp focus she’d trained on the two of us evaporated in an instant and she physically moved closer, as if she could block CJ from vision and allow him to slip away.

 

On the sixteenth floor?” I asked.  Pressure was important.  Whatever her reason for coming upstairs was, she’d proven herself willing to abandon any previous lines of inquiry in order to defend it.  If that kept her from asking questions about Devlin and me, or from discovering the bag of hard drives beneath the desk, I would cheerfully exploit the opening.

 

It’s just a saying, Sarah.  I wasn’t actually trying to get fresh air…just wanted to stretch my legs for a bit.”

 

I tilted my head and regarded Virginia.  The pace of her speaking had increased and there were subtle, almost imperceptible hesitations between her words.  Before I’d started working with Devlin, I wouldn’t have noticed those tells.  Hell, before the breakneck pace of the last six months, I might still have missed them.  But I had worked with Devlin and I was growing more accustomed to spotting a lie than I’d ever needed to be before.

 

Virginia dabbed the back of one hand against her forehead, which only served to draw my attention to the beads of sweat there.

 

You came to your old office,” I said, “so that you could stretch your legs.  That doesn’t make any sense, Virginia.”

 

Well, it doesn’t have to make sense to you, now does it?”  Virginia drew herself up and set her shoulders.  “I’m not the one sneaking around in the dark, am I?”

 

Instead of pointing that out that, yes, she was also by definition doing the exact same thing she was accusing me of, I focused instead on how flimsy her posturing felt.  This wasn’t the woman I’d grown up around, the figure who had both terrified and inspired me as a child. This was someone desperately trying to distract from…something…

 

Then I got it, all at once.  “Oh!  Oh!  You are…you have got to be kidding!”

 

CJ attempted to shrink into himself, judging from the way his shoulders came together and his head lowered.  In the low light of the office, he was almost successful.  Virginia tried to maintain her poise for a few more seconds before she also looked away.

 

Devlin tried to conceal his snicker, but was woefully unsuccessful.  I turned a glare in his direction.  “This isn’t my problem,” he said, raising both hands in surrender.  “I’m just visiting.”

 

A great many words sprang to mind, but I couldn’t very well tear into him for laughing without potentially unraveling our cover story.  I barely managed to fight down the impulse.

 

I am an adult,” Virginia said, drawing my attention back to her.  “And CJ is an adult.”

 

Barely.  No offense to you, CJ, but the two of you?  In an office?  In this office?”  Another thought occurred to me and I recoiled from it. “Oh!  Oh, God,  this isn’t the first time you’ve done…this, is it?”  I gestured vaguely to communicate exactly what I meant by ‘this.’

 

Virginia avoided my eyes.  “Now, look here.  That is hardly any of your business, is it?”

 

This…is awkward, isn’t it?” Devlin asked.  “How about we all just discuss this later?  Somewhere else, maybe?”

 

I could feel his intentions, solely through his words and intonation.  I couldn’t allow this particular wrinkle to distract me from the very real possibility of a building-wide alarm.  The last thing I wanted to do was lie about theft while still in possession of stolen goods. 

 

Of course, discussing my grandmother’s sex life ranked as number two on the list of ‘conversations I could have died without ever having,’ but if that’s what it took…

Devlin coughed awkwardly – I wasn’t sure if he was playing it up for effect, or if he legitimately felt uncomfortable in the situation – and took a small step to one side. The motion brought him close enough to reach out and touch my shoulder, but also placed him more squarely in front of the bag. He couldn’t take the risk of kneeling to pick it back up. If either Virginia or CJ asked a question about the bag or its contents, we’d be in a whole new world of trouble.

Thankfully, Virginia displayed no intention of belaboring the moment. She’d already released CJ’s hand and now stood almost a full foot away from him, carefully not looking at him or me. “I don’t see why we’ve got to discuss this at all,” she said, leaning on her southern accent a bit heavier for the last two words. “The two of you are adults and so are CJ and me. Seems to me that we could just move on from this little…predicament…without speaking another word on the matter.”

While I knew that there was more going on in my grandmother’s head than she was discussing, this wasn’t the time or place to start teasing out details. And, if those details included even more information about her Maude-like relationship with CJ, I could get behind the plan of pretending this whole encounter had never happened. I was already going to need several hours worth of cute otters to erase the mental images that I couldn’t seem to fully block out. Or Sam, maybe. He could be cute when he was in the mood to do so. Regardless, I was in no hurry to plumb the figurative depths of my grandmother’s personal life.

That’s…probably for the best,” I said. “Devlin, if you’d be so kind as to carry my bag for me…”

Devlin retrieved the bag and pinched the mouth shut between his fingers. As long as he carried everything carefully, I doubted that the hard drives would even rattle against each other.

We moved to exit the office. Virginia and CJ were more than happy to clear a path for us. The stairway down to the fifteenth floor, to the fundraiser, and the Texan, and ultimately to escape was only a few yards in front of us. It would only take a quick phone call to Michel and then we could get away from the Sovereign, in favor of somewhere isolated and defensible. There, I could get to the work of rifling through the stolen hard drives and potentially find a solution to the Gordian knot the Lady, the Texan, the Magi, and Caelum had managed to tie my team into.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised in the slightest when the alarm began to sound.

CJ and Devlin reacted at about the same time. Devlin’s instincts, honed through a virtual lifetime of theft, leaned heavily on the ‘flight’ side of the ‘flight or fight’ equation. He tensed up, bent his knees to lower his center of gravity, and seemed like nothing quite so much as a nervous feline.

I didn’t know where it came from or how I knew enough to identify it but, in a moment of crystal clarity, I realized that the only thing keeping him from fleeing entirely was the knowledge that he’d be leaving me to face whatever came next alone. It was both a noble sentiment and a blindingly stupid one. On the one hand, it meant that we’d face whatever development was coming down the pipe as a team, like we’d done so many years ago.

On the other hand, we were currently on a floor of the Sovereign literally owned by my family, and the odds of me getting into any great amounts of trouble were vanishingly thin. Besides, he was the one with the hard drives.

Sufficed to say, it was a confusing moment.

CJ was a security guard by trade. In that moment, though, he reacted like a cop or at least like someone with cop training. His hand went to his side, but he wasn’t carrying a weapon on the outside of his suit. Then, presumably due to the lack of imminent violence, he made a judgment call.

Miss Ford,” he said. For a heartbeat, I wasn’t sure which of the two Miss Fords in the room he was speaking to, until he touched my grandmother’s elbow lightly. “We need to go.”

Yes, of course,” Virginia said. She allowed herself to be bustled out of the office and herded toward the door. “I’ll need to see to the guests and make sure that everyone’s alright.”

The four of us turned to leave, all at once instead of individually. As a result, CJ and Devlin tried to squeeze through the door at the same time. The collision only lasted for an instant, until Devlin stepped back and raised his hands to signify that CJ should go first.

Both hands.

I happened to be looking at Virginia at that moment, so I was in the perfect position to see her eyes widen, then narrow down to slits.

She made eye contact with me for an impossibly long second, but said nothing. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach.

But I had no hope that she would remain silent for very long.

Chapter 48

It took less than thirty seconds for the building’s backup generators to kick in, but the damage was already done. To restart the process from scratch – brute forcing the password, re-establishing the connection, indexing, and isolating the relevant information – would require me to start over from the very beginning. Or, if not the absolute beginning, close enough that the difference in time would be fundamentally meaningless. Sure, the work would go a little faster, owing to system memory and the like, but it wouldn’t be six or seven minutes faster.

Some data had been transferred already. I just couldn’t know how much or if anything I’d managed to acquire would be useful. And, even if I’d been lucky enough to get the exact information Devlin and I had sneaked into the server room to steal, it would almost certainly be corrupted. Again, that wouldn’t be an absolute deal breaker when I was located a comfortable distance from the scene of the crime, but at the moment? It meant that there wasn’t any way for me to assess the quality of what I’d managed to acquire.

It wouldn’t have been fair to say that we didn’t have any options. We did. We just didn’t have any good options. But was that really a new thing, in the post-Magi world I currently resided in?

We can cut and run,” Devlin said, “or we can try to figure something out. Whatever you want to do, though, you’ll have to make up your mind fast.”

I looked up at him and noticed, almost immediately, that he’d slipped into his purely professional mode. Any trace of anxiety or nervousness was gone from his expression. All I could read in his eyes was a serious, intense focus. The sound of his mental gears spinning into high speed was almost audible.

It meant something that, even in his most utilitarian mindset, Devlin was laying this choice at my feet. If I decided to make a break for the benefit, it would lead to very bad things in very short order. There would be nothing stopping the Texan from selling my identity to the highest bidder, for one. If the Magi hadn’t yet figured out that they were under attack from a highly mobile and effective team of thieves, that was only because they seemed to lack the imagination to consider such a thing possible. Asher probably would have put the clues together by now but, thankfully, he’d been removed from play already.

Regardless, it was only a matter of time before someone in the organization caught on. When that happened it would only take a quick phone call to the friendly international information dealer and the game would be up. The only way to avoid that eventuality that I could see required me to voluntarily give up my public identity and do as Devlin had suggested earlier: to allow myself to fall entirely into the criminal underworld, using the anonymity and numerous false identities that defined that realm as a sort of cover.

And even that wasn’t a guarantee of safety forever. Whoever was chasing the after the Mouse – Caelum, the Magi, or some unholy partnership between the two forces – would eventually find him. Whether that happened before the Community’s wholly unreasonable time limit would only determine which of the five of us fell beneath the digital scythe first.

Or I could try something crazy to get the data I needed. I didn’t exactly know what I might try only that it would have to be more ill-advised than sneaking away during a fundraiser to burgle a building that my family owned. We might pull it off. Stranger things had happened. London had been a disaster of unprecedented proportions, almost from the word go, but we’d still managed to come out of that in one piece. The situation had Tangiers had involved small armies, slavers, and an eerily Golding-esque conclave of orphan children, and we hadn’t failed at that either. I believed in Devlin and, even if they weren’t necessarily with us at the moment, I believed in Mila and Michel.

If we didn’t succeed though, I still ran the risk of clumsily triggering some electronic trap or attracting the attention of a roving guard or…well, any number of things that could go spontaneously wrong at the worst possible moment. Like a car picking this exact instant to lose control and crash into the one relevant power line.

Devlin watched my expression. His body language didn’t read as patient, so much as poised. Tense, like a hunting cat or some other type of predator. Whatever I decided, he was ready to act instead of standing around weighing consequences and double checking his own decisions. I’d felt that electric current in the shantytown and, just beneath the surface of my skin, the heat began rising again.

On the one hand, definite failure and the end of life as I knew it. On the other hand, the impossibly thing sliver of a chance to pull off a miracle.

Put that way, the choice was almost too obvious. Miracles were almost becoming commonplace for us.

No time to set up another connection,” I said. While I spoke I began to rapidly unplug the servers from his each other. Not knowing why, Devlin mirrored me on the other side of the server room. “That’d be too much to ask for.”

So you’ve got what you need?”

I shook my head. “No way of knowing that until I can get back to a reliable computer. Or if I can find the time to let this tablet chug its way through a load of work it simply isn’t constructed to handle.”

What then?”

I didn’t even bother returning the cords to their proper place. “Subtlety isn’t working. I say we go with a more physical solution.”

To punctuate my sentence, I allowed my eyes to skim over the surface of the nearest rack. It only took me a second to locate a barely protruding handle. My fingers were just able to gain purchase on the handle, but it was enough. The device wasn’t strongly secured to the overall computer anyway. It only took the barest amount of pressure before the hard drive clicked and released from its mountings.

This,” I said, holding up the hard drive as an operative example, “is what we’re looking for. You see one, yank it out and throw it in the bag.”

Devlin hesitated. “That isn’t going to tip people off?”

It’s absolutely going to tip people off,” I confirmed, “but how are they supposed to figure out exactly what we wanted to steal if we steal everything?”

He considered the merits of that insane plan for a moment. Then, a thin smile spread across his lips. “Especially when there was already a theft elsewhere in the building.”

I honestly hadn’t thought about that. I’d temporarily forgotten about Barrett, the cat burglar with the bear-marked business card. It was true that the theft of information – barring trade or government secrets, both of which I was fairly sure fell outside of the purview of the Sovereign’s residents – would be treated as less severe than whatever finery Barrett had pilfered from higher in the building. There would be an investigation into the theft of several hard drives from the server room, of course, and a few specialists would probably lose their jobs for incredibly lax security procedures. But anything important here would almost certainly be backed up elsewhere. If Barrett had been here after some jewelry of considerable value, that would make it a lot easier for us to slip under the radar long enough to get what we needed and get away from the Sovereign.

Or, more accurately, from Atlanta entirely. It had barely been a day and things were already impossibly weird.

It was harder to spot the slim black handles in the dim emergency lights but, using a penlight that Devlin provided, the work went fairly quickly. Five minutes, maybe six at the absolute maximum, passed while we pulled out the physical methods of data storage and tossed them haphazardly into my bag. When I took the time to check my own phone, I signaled for Devlin to stop.

If we’re going to go, we’ve got to do it now,” I said, “Virginia’s long winded, but she isn’t going to stand up there and talk for hours.”

He nodded and, without asking if I needed help, took the bag filled with hard drives and threw it over his shoulder. He winced as the weight settled into place and tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal the expression.

Are you okay?” I asked.

Devlin waved his free hand dismissively. “The other guy wasn’t very gentle,” he admitted. The pain that passed over his face wasn’t entirely physical. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

You’re sure?”

I’m sure that we don’t have time to worry about every little injury I’ve got,” Devlin shot back. His personality was still submerged and focused, but a noticeable amount of heat made its way into his voice.

I couldn’t remember him ever getting sassy while completely immersed in the job, but I didn’t have the time to consider what made this instance different. “Alright, then. That’s my part, handled. If there’s something to find out about the stoppage in his information flow, it’ll be on one of those. I hope. He’ll just have to wait until I find a solution for the Mouse problem.”

Which will be somewhere in your bag.”

Devlin hadn’t made it a question, but I nodded anyway. “Or something I can use to find that information,” I said. “Easy enough.”

It would absolutely not be easy, but I didn’t feel the need to tell that to Devlin. Even though he didn’t really understood computers, I suspected that he knew I was exaggerating anyway.

Time?” Devlin asked.

I checked my phone and my heart skipped a couple of beats. “Past time,” I answered. “Come on, time to make ourselves scarce. Or…visible, rather. You know what I mean.”

He did, in fact, know what I meant. Devlin took the lead and I followed in his wake. If any guards decided to path down into the server room from the higher residential floors, his keen eyesight and hair-trigger instincts would alert us long before I noticed anything awry. It felt natural to allow him to take point now, in the same way that he’d effortlessly and without the faintest bit of shame, allowed me to handle things in the server room.

We worked well together. That much wasn’t a surprise. It was a pleasant shock to discover that our professional chemistry continued, even when I was forced to work in the field instead of behind a computer screen a few blocks away from the crime scene. I wouldn’t be repeating this particular type of infiltration in the future, if I could help it, but it never hurt to have a few more options in my metaphorical bag of tricks.

The steady trickle of adrenaline that I’d felt building earlier swelled into a stream of electricity in my veins. I didn’t even need the boost now, and I tried to tamp down on the jittery energy growing within my body, but no dice. I kept myself from bouncing on my toes by drumming the fingers of one hand against a knee.

From the twentieth floor to the nineteenth, we didn’t encounter any trouble. On the nineteeth floor, Devlin and I took great care not to speak a single word out loud while we navigated across the open floor space. The two guards were still struggling with their bonds but, thus far, nothing had given way. They twisted and writhed, moaning incoherent syllables into their gags.

I tapped Devlin on the shoulder and pointed at the guards. He looked in their direction, squinted in the darkness, and then moved into the staircase. He didn’t speak until the safety door was safely shut and, even then, he kept his voice to a whisper.

What is it?”

The guards,” I asked. “Are they going to be a problem?”

He weighed the question. “Those were professional knots,” Devlin said finally. “But they aren’t difficult knots. If either of those guards gets a hand free and has even been so much as a Boy Scout, odds are high we won’t have much of a lead before they’re both on the hunt.”

Are they going to be able to raise an alarm?”

Devlin shook his head, paused, then shrugged. “They probably could, but I don’t think they’ll want to admit that the two of them were beaten up and disarmed by a single man dressed in black.”

But they might do it.”

Yes, Sarah, they might. Which is why I’m wondering why you picked this moment to stop us for a little chat?”

I opened my mouth to respond before I realized that I didn’t actually have an answer. Some part of my mind had wandered off, apparently, and started to speculate about Barrett. I knew that I couldn’t disable two guards, by myself, and neutralize them for that length of time. I doubted that Devlin could do it, either, but I wasn’t going to voice that thought. Mila could definitely have done it, but the guards wouldn’t have been tied up so much as incapable of movement.

Barrett was a thief, like us. Well, he was probably closer to Devlin on the scale of criminality, but still. Because of my limited face-to-face experience with other thieves, I couldn’t help but wonder if the underworld was even deeper and more mysterious than I’d imagined. The Magi existed. The Lady was on my email list. Why wouldn’t cat burglars be a real thing, too?

Instead of vomiting out my thoughts, I took a breath and shook my head. “No reason. Forget I said anything.”

Devlin raised an eyebrow. I expected him to ask a follow-up question, but he looked away from me and let the subject drop.

We crossed the eighteenth and seventeenth floors quickly, without any complications or conversation. I began to think of excuses I could use, if we made it back to the fundraiser after my grandmother’s speech. The new and improved Virginia Ford would probably care more about the minutiae of where I’d disappeared to, but an increased interest in my personal life wouldn’t give her any additional insight into my hobbies. As far as she knew, I could be a wanderer at events. It wouldn’t be out of the question for me to disappear into a side room or office, just to get a little bit of space from the press of sycophants and hangers-on, eager to get a little bit of attention from the youngest Ford sister.

That might work. I could make that work. I just needed to make it to the fifteenth floor without anything else going wrong.

Halfway across the sixteenth floor, with the door leading to the stairway in plain view, Devlin let out a strangled sound of surprise. Before I could do anything more than let out an equally strangled inquisitive sound, he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a nearby office. He slipped a hand into his pocket, fumbling around for his lockpicks. He located them easily enough but it turned out that he didn’t need them. As soon as he tested the door handle, it opened easily into an office, lit primarily by the lights of the city through a nine foot tall plate glass window.

Devlin pulled me down into a crouch and placed an index finger over his lips. I took the cue and fell silent. He tilted his head slightly and pressed his ear against the door.

I strained to hear whatever sound he’d picked up on, but failed. Something had set him off and I trusted him enough to believe in his instincts implicitly. There were questions I wanted to ask, but those could wait until we were in the clear.

Do you remember what business operates on this floor?” Devlin asked, in a barely audible whisper. “Don’t check the tablet, I don’t want the light to be visible.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, searching my memory for the answer. It provided itself with only a minimum of effort. “This is one of ours,” I whispered back. “Some of the executive offices expanded onto this floor.”

There was something familiar about the office, now that I was thinking about it. In the light streaming through the window, I could make out several paintings on the wall. They weren’t masterpieces, of the sort that Devlin and I had stolen. Black men and women, drawn in a strange cubist style, decorated the walls. On the desk, only a short distance away from where I crouched, a paperweight that I recalled playing with as a youth, sat unused on one corner.

Devlin,” I said. “I think I know whose office this is.”

He didn’t have an opportunity to respond. Now, straining my hearing to the absolute limit, I heard a door open. The stairwell, presumably. Then, on the heels of that sound, my grandmother’s voice reached my ears. “No one’s going to come up here,” she said. “That’s the best part. Everyone thinks it’s easier to just keep an office up here for me, in case I decide to come up and get some work done. Keeping me busy, you know.”

Her voice drew closer. I knew what was going to happen several excruciatingly long seconds beforehand, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. My grandmother’s footsteps stopped outside of the room, the doorknob turned, and then she stepped inside.

CJ trailed behind her and I could see that she held his hand in hers. They both froze when they saw Devlin and me crouching less than a foot away from them.

Sarah?” Virginia asked. “What in the blue hell are the two of you doing up here?”